Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is a fictional look at the New Economy, building on The Grapes of Wrath to examine the new Working Poor, and the non-working rich, to conclude we are all now the ghosts of Tom Joad.
Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is about growth, failure and redemption. Rich in allegory, it is funny and serious, Holden and Joe Dirt. Along the ride the story tackles bullying and suicide, first kisses and cunnilingus, and the protagonist’s struggle to overcome his father’s war that survived within him. It’s a question about how to still own something—your labor, your self-respect—you’d sold.
The main character narrates:
This used to be a country that talked about dreams with a straight face; it was never supposed to be the finite place we’re headed for. There were pieces of pieces of machinery from the abandoned factory left on the ground, too unimportant to sell off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, left scattered like clues from a lost civilization, the left droppings of our failure. Might as well been the bones of the men who worked there left. We were once the American Dream and now we just were what happened to it.
Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is about regime change, the death of manufacturing, the deindustrialization of America, and a way of life that was lost alongside those jobs. Wages never were higher than in 1973 and fell as poverty rose in almost equal proportion. How did we go from the booming prosperity of the 1950s and 60s to the Rust Belt of the late 1970s in the course of only two or three generations?
A Personal Note
For my many dear friends in State Department Diplomatic Security, I am sorry to say that the book contains nothing of official concern, and so sadly you are not going to be involved in this project. You unsuccessfully tried to sabotage my first book, We Meant Well, and now I am giving you the space to ignore me and focus on cleaning up your own house.
For regular blog readers, Ghosts of Tom Joad, A Story of the #99Percent is the same story you may have previously known as The People on the Bus. There will be much more information to come, but trust me on this: This story will kick your ass.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this blog or book. Follow us on Twitter!
Attempted suicide after a harsh interrogation? Hiring armed guys with criminal backgrounds? Senior officials having sex with subordinates, prostitutes and minors? Investigations into all of the above covered up or halted? That’s the news, not from Gitmo or some banana republic, but from your U.S. Department of State. Better get out the hand sanitizer, this blog post gets filthy fast.
A Sad Pattern of Sleaze from America’s Diplomats
Ever since the story broke on CBS News that the State Department covered up numerous allegations of wrong-doing to protect its public image, the details of said wrong-doing have been leaking out.
The reasons to care about this are many, and all the Hillary-love and attempts to just call it (just) a Republican witch hunt are a smokescreen. The obvious reason to care is that these people represent America abroad, and we need to ask what image they are projecting. In addition, such crimes and personal traits as alleged below make them vulnerable to blackmail, either by other members of the USG (promote me, give me a better assignment, or else…) or foreign intelligence (turn over the secrets or the photos go to the press). The fact that the organization apparently cannot police itself internally raises questions about competence (and the former SecState saying she was wholly ignorant of all this sludge is not a defense that actually makes her look presidential), and about what if anything it is accomplishing on America’s behalf.
Here’s a roundup to date:
– As a special shout-out to We Meant Well regulars, USA Today claims it has a memo detailing how Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, allegedly interceded in an investigation by Diplomatic Security into an affair between failed-Iraq ambassador-designate Brett McGurk and Wall Street Journal reporter Gina Chon.
– Cheryl Mills again: Mills, a longtime confidante of Hillary, reportedly played a key role in the State Department’s damage-control efforts on the Benghazi attack last year and was also named in accusations that department higher-ups quashed investigations into diplomats’ potential criminal activity. Cheryl Mills, who served in a dual capacity in recent years as general counsel and chief of staff to Clinton, was accused of attempting to stifle congressional access to a diplomat who held a senior post in Libya at the time of the attack.
– U.S. ambassador to Belgium Howard Gutman accused of soliciting “sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children.” The ambassador “routinely ditched his protective security detail in order to solicit sexual favors from both prostitutes and minor children,” according to documents obtained by NBC News. State Department Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy ordered an end to the investigation. “The ambassador’s protective detail and the embassy’s surveillance detection team [Note: A State Department team that conducts counterespionage surveillance, watching State Department officials to see if they are being watched by foreign spies] . . . were well aware of the behavior.”
The ambassador explained that sometimes he fights with his wife, needs air and he goes for a walk in the park because he likes it. The Atlantic reported that the park Gutman trolled, Parc Royal Warandepark, was well-known as a place to pick up adult homosexual and adolescent boy prostitutes.
A Belgian newspaper described the park: “I see young children go to adult waiting. Later, another adult waits, often to extort money from the victim after. I’ve been awakened by cries and my terrace, I saw someone being beaten. I had my legs were shaking. Time to call the police, I saw the victim painfully get up and go.”
– A State Department security official in Beirut “engaged in sexual assaults” with foreign nationals hired as embassy guards. State’s former regional security officer in Beirut, Chuck Lisenbee, allegedly sexually assaulted guards and was accused of similar assaults in Baghdad, Khartoum and Monrovia. Justine Sincavage, then-director of Diplomatic Security Service, called the allegations a “witch hunt” and gave agents “only three days” to investigate, and no charges were brought, according to USA Today.
– Members of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s security detail “engaged prostitutes while on official trips in foreign countries,” a problem the report says was “endemic.” Three members of Clinton’s security detail admitted to hiring prostitutes while on foreign trips and were given suspensions of one day. An investigator for Diplomatic Security launched an investigation into similar allegations against four other members of Clinton’s security detail but was ordered by Kimber Davidson, chief of the special investigations division, and Rob Kelty, his deputy, to shut down the investigation.
– The State Department has hired an “alarming number of law-enforcement agents with criminal or checkered backgrounds” because of a flawed hiring process, a stunning memo obtained by The New York Post reveals. “Too many people entering the [Diplomatic Security and Information Management] communities end up as subjects of [Special Investigation Division] investigations and HR adjudications, become Giglio-impaired and can play only limited roles thereafter,” according to the memo. “Giglio” refers to a US Supreme Court case dealing with jury notification that witnesses have made deals with the government to induce testimony. Some Diplomatic Security field offices “have major problems just waiting to be discovered,” the memo adds.
– In one case, aggressive interrogation techniques by Diplomatic Service agents “drove an employee to attempt suicide” when accused of raping his maid in Bangkok, Thailand, a memo suggests. “After “being told he would end up in a Thai prison, his wife would lose her job and his children would be pulled out of school, [the man] attempted suicide by jumping out of the 16th-story window at a hotel in Bangkok.” The guy lived, and was flown back to Washington for in-patient psychiatric care, where the agents continued to harass him. The rape charges were ultimately dropped.
– The same Diplomatic Security memo cites eight cases involving Diplomatic Security agents who resorted to “false, misleading or incomplete statements in reports,” “privacy-act violations” or “lack of objectivity” in investigations.
– Diplomatic security agents learned that James Combs, a senior diplomatic security agent in Baghdad and formerly of the DS Office of Professional Standards, was having an extramarital affair with a subordinate and had numerous affairs with men over a 30-year span without the knowledge of his wife. This presented “counterintelligence concerns,” but the investigation never reached a conclusion.
– A security contractor in Baghdad died of an overdose of methadone, which he was taking to counteract an addiction to the painkiller oxycodone. An underground drug ring may have been supplying the drugs, but State’s regional security officer did not allow a special investigations agent to pursue that possibility.
– In Miami, agents investigating a car accident by diplomatic security agent Evelyn Kittinger learned that she had been claiming full pay for several years “but had actually only worked very few hours.” State Department supervisors told the investigator to advise her to resign to avoid facing criminal charges and a major fine.
– Another report states that a top State Department official stymied investigators trying to get to the bottom of four killings in Honduras involving DEA agents and local police. The incident ended in the deaths of two pregnant women and two men last year, after Honduran national police opened fire from a State Department-owned helicopter on a small boat. Honduran police said drugs were involved, but locals said the boat was full of fishermen.
–ADDED: Sen. Charles Grassley is probing longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s employment status, asking how she got a sweetheart deal to be a private six-figure consultant while still serving as a top State Department official. Abedin, one of Clinton’s most loyal aides, is of course married to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who’s in the midst of a vigorous effort to beat off his own sexting scandal and become mayor of New York. Abedin hauled in as much as $350,000 in outside income on top of her $135,000 government salary. She was redesignated a “special government employee” who was able to haul in cash as a private contractor while still on the government dole.
–ADDED: Consulate General Naples’ Kerry Howard says she was bullied, harassed and forced to resign after she exposed Consul General Donald Moore’s alleged office trysts with subordinates and hookers. “When our diplomats disrespect the Italians by hiring and firing them because they have seen too much — or use them for ‘sex-ercise’ — we have to question why we have diplomats abroad at taxpayer expense,” said Howard. As a senior foreign-service officer, Moore makes as much as $179,700 a year. His first office romance supposedly occurred within days of his arrival in Italy, when he allegedly bedded a consulate employee, a single mom who fell in love with him. Moore was honored as “Consular Officer of the Year” (Barbara Watson Award) in 2005.
– A Foreign Service Officer, Michael Todd Sestak, 41, has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to commit bribery and visa fraud. Dude was a senior visa official in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and supposedly pocketed some $2 million dollars for his work.
It appears that Foggy Bottom has sprung multiple leaks as hard-working folks grow tired of their bosses being allowed to do just about anything without punishment. What is going on? I don’t recall this much garbage coming into the daylight ever before. I assume it was happening all the same forever, but not this much in the public eye. I think it is time for Kerry to say something about at least trying to control his organization.
And of course someone should throw Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy out. He *may* be getting the message that in this internet age if you don’t give people a realistic internal avenue to fix things they’ll just go outside. That’s kinda what I did… So there is no doubt much more to come…
State Department Responds
The State Department spokesman said, “We hold all employees to the highest standards.” Spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki told reporters repeatedly this week that the accusations are “unsubstantiated.”
So that’s that apparently. No reporter has seen it useful to ask why for more than four and a half years, the State Department has had no appointed inspector general, the longest such vacancy of any federal agency. Or why, during his entire time in office, Obama has not nominated anyone to fill the slot. Or why during her four years as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not demand an inspector general for her organization.
A spokesman said Clinton was completely unaware of any of the investigations mentioned in the Office of the Inspector General’s reports and memos, including the case involving her personal security detail allegedly soliciting prostitutes. “We learned of it from the media and don’t know anything beyond what’s been reported.”
It means nothing that a candidate who will no doubt cite her endless efforts on behalf of women everywhere remained unaware of sex crimes occurring, well, under her.
Opposition researchers and taxpayers alike, once again, Hillary Clinton’s defense is that she was totally unaware of what was going on in the organization she lead and managed, up to and including the actions of her own lifelong advisor and chief of staff, as well senior officials who reported directly to her. She’ll make a great president!
Oh wait– these are just “allegations.” They need to be investigated. Well, the problem of course is that one of the allegations is that powerful trolls inside State prevented or derailed any investigations, and indeed the over-arching allegation is that Diplomatic Security, charged with investigations, is riddled with political considerations that prevent full and transparent investigations. So that’s a pretty weak excuse to blow off everything said.
That said, maybe some are false. OK, but if even a small number of these serious accusations are true (rape, murder, minors) then even that suggests an organization operating without internal controls and the best defense its leader can come up with is her own ignorance. Not a good thing.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this blog or book. Follow us on Twitter!
But enough about me. Like me, I am sure that you are overjoyed at the prospect of the U.S. inserting itself even deeper into another MidEast civil war (I think it is still Syria at present but the U.S. could have invaded another place between the time this was written and when you are reading). So let’s try another handy quiz:
The U.S. is intervening in Syria’s civil war because Assad used poison gas.
The poison gas killed 100-150 people.
Close to 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date.
The U.S. is thus going to war again in the Middle East because 0.001 percent of the deaths were caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones.
(Also, please note that the U.S.’ use of white phosphorus and tear gas against civilian areas in Fallujah during the liberation of Iraq, and the use of depleted uranium munitions during the Iraq and Afghan crusades clearly do not in any way constitute the use of chemical weapons. Nor did Agent Orange in Vietnam.)
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this blog or book. Follow us on Twitter!
America’s spies– our bad guys who sold secrets to other countries, Ames, the Walkers, Pollard– worked for money. Their motives were straightforward and they clearly, actively sought to trade secrets away for personal gain. They choose secrets such as code ciphers of specific interest and value to the enemy.
But what about now? The people Obama is/has/will be prosecuting under the Espionage Act (Manning, Drake, Snowden) did not act for money (quite the contrary; all suffered personally for their actions) and instead of informing a foreign power, they sought to inform the American people. That is not spying.
Our current whistleblowers were all vetted multiple times by the U.S. Government. If Snowden’s publically available bio is true, he was vetted by the Army, the CIA, the NSA and again as an NSA contractor. What happened?
What happened was conscience, and God bless us all for it.
History recognizes the need to act on conscience when faced with unconscionable situations. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing about Kristallnacht, said “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” The Nuremberg prosecutors reminded the accused that “Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore individual citizens have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring.” Dr. Martin Luther King, writing from a Birmingham jail cell, said “One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’”
Bradley Manning provided no real aid and comfort to the enemy. Among other horrific events, he exposed what was a war crime to everyone but the U.S. Government as civilians and journalists were machine gunned from the air. He exposed U.S. murder of Iraqi civilians. He shared with the American people exactly what was being done in their name. None of that information was secret for any legitimate reason (it was kept quiet to protect the USG from embarrassment and/or prosecution), and it certainly was not secret to the “enemy;” they knew damn well what we were doing.
The case is the same with Snowden. He simply told the American people, in much greater detail than the Government wished to reveal, what their own government was doing to them. The NSA spying focused on Americans, and even as the government seeks to justify it the case weakens around them. Indeed, all that surveillance failed to even catch Snowden gathering documents from the inside but we’re supposed to believe it has saved us from terrorism? Once again, the people most informed by the leaked material were the American people, not any imagined generic “enemy.” Indeed, most of the enemy comes from police-state countries where surveillance (and torture, another recent U.S. activity) is routine and overt. They knew damn well what we were doing. Bin Laden stopped using cell phones a decade ago.
If I could shout into the White House, it would be something like this:
Your own guards are turning against your surveillance and secrecy. People whom you vetted are being moved into glorious, selfless democratic acts of conscience by your lies and your actions. If the government continues to treat every citizen as a potential terrorist, more and more of them will be moved to act, to uphold their true oath of office– to uphold and protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
Are you not aware Mr. Obama that one whistleblower, Assange, is living in a foreign embassy for his own protection from you, while another, Snowden, is said to be headed for asylum somewhere abroad for his own safety? During the Cold War and onward, it was American Embassies abroad that provided shelter and asylum to political victims. You can expect more leakers, and by focusing your response on arresting the messengers instead of changing your policies, you will in fact assure it as your legacy.
This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
NSA surveillance is legal.
True, as was slavery in the U.S., the Holocaust under Nazi Germany, Apartheid in South Africa and so forth. Laws mean very little when they are manipulated for evil.
I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I care? If you’re doing nothing wrong, then you’ve got nothing to hide!
See above. The definition of “wrong” can change very quickly.
I trust Obama on this.
All of your personal data is in the hands of the same people that run the TSA, the IRS and likely the DMV. Do you trust all of them all the time to never make mistakes or act on personal grudges or political biases? Do you believe none of them would ever sell your data for personal profit ever? In fact, the NSA is already sharing your data with, at minimum, British intelligence. That’s a foreign government that your American government is informing on you to, FYI. Also, the alleged leaker, Edward Snowden, worked for a private contracting company and had access to your data.
I really trust Obama on this.
OK, let’s stipulate that Obama will never do anything bad with the data. But once collected, your personal data exists forever, and is available to whomever in the future can access it, using whatever technologies come to exist. Trusting anyone with such power is foolish.
Well, there are checks and balances in the system to protect us.
See above. Also, the king of all checks and balances in this case, the Fourth Amendment, has been treated by the government like a used Kleenex. As for the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Court (FISA), set up to review government requests for wiretapping, it approved all 1,789 requests submitted to it in 2012. The FBI made 15,229 National Security Letter requests in 2012 on Americans. None of those even require FISA rubber-stamping. And here’s DOJ trying to keep classified a court ruling that says it might have acted unconstitutionally.
More importantly, if all the NSA’s activities are legal, why not allow them to be tested openly and unambiguously in public, in front of the Supreme Court. After all, if you’ve done nothing wrong there is nothing to hide. Unfortunately, when Amnesty International tried to bring such a case before the Court, the case was denied because Amnesty could not prove it was subject to monitoring– that was a secret!– and thus was denied standing to even bring the suit.
Many people believe the surveillance violates both the Fourth Amendment protections against search, and the First Amendment protections on the right to peaceably assemble, online in this instance.
There are 300 million Americans, producing a gazillion emails and Skype chats and Instagrams every day. Nobody cares about my boring stuff.
Mining all that data is just a matter of how many computers are devoted to the task today, and using better technology in the future will make it even easier.
But the TV says they collect only “Metadata” so I’m safe.
Metadata is the index to all the content NSA is already sweeping up. NSA is able to record say 24 hours worth of Verizon phone calls easy enough. With the Metadata, they can then easily locate any particular call within that huge chunk of otherwise streaming data. Metadata can also provide geolocation information to track your physical movements, among other things. It is very important.
Distasteful as this all is, it is necessary to keep us safe. It’s for our own good.
The United States, upholding to our beautiful Bill of Rights, has survived (albeit on a sometimes bumpy road) two world wars, the Cold War and innumerable challenges without a massive, all-inclusive destruction of our civil rights. Keep in mind that the Founders created the Bill of Rights, point-by-point, specifically to address the abuses of power (look up the never-heard-from-again Third Amendment) they experienced under an oppressive British government. A bunch of angry jihadis, real and imagined, seems a poor reason to change that system. Prior to 9/11 we did not have a mass-scale terror act (by foreigners; American Citizen Timothy McVeigh pulled one off.) Since 9/11 we have not had a mass-scale terror attack. We can say 9/11 was a one-off, an aberration, and cannot be a justification for everything the government wishes to do. There is also the question of why, if the NSA is vacuuming up everything, and even sharing that collection abroad, this all needs to be kept secret from the American people. If it is for our own good, the government should be proud to tell us what they are doing for us, instead of being embarrassed when it leaks. If you’re not doing anything wrong then you’ve got nothing to hide, right?
Terrorist are everywhere.
Doubtful. No suicide bombers in shopping malls, no hijackings. How many Americans have died in the past twelve years due to terrorism in the U.S.? At the same time, despite all this intrusion into our lives and violations of the Fourth Amendment, the system completely missed the Boston bombers, two of the dumbest, least sophisticated bro’ terrorists in the world. Those two practiced no tradecraft at all. Maybe all this surveillance isn’t really about stopping terrorists and is more about generic spying on us all, using a fake argument of 100% security at the cost of 0% privacy? At the same time, we do have a problem with gun nuts committing mass shootings that have mowed down Americans in numbers far beyond terrorism since 9/11, but no one seems concerned about using tech to stop that. So much has been justified (torture, spying) by the so-called ticking time bomb scenario but there has never been shown an actual ticking time bomb scenario in real life.
Protecting America comes first.
But protecting what from what is the question. If instead of spending trillions and trillions of dollars on spying and domestic surveillance we spent that same money on repairing our infrastructure and improving our schools, wouldn’t that more directly create a stronger America?
I just don’t care.
Fine, enjoy your television. Just don’t be surprised when you’re woken from your deep sleep one night by a knock on the door.
BONUS: If you’re Edward Snowden, the alleged leaker, and you have some interest in not spending the rest of your life in a U.S. supermax prison, why oh why are you in Hong Kong? Hong Kong has an active extradition agreement with the U.S. Why are you not in Ecuador, Beijing, or maybe Iceland?
Snowden has the guts to do what the government does not have the guts to do: bring the NSA’s activities into daylight, for all to see. As a whistleblower myself, and meeting many others from Ellsberg to Drake, I know it takes enormous courage to do what Snowden did, and the willingness to give up everything– life, freedom, everything– for a good bigger than yourself. If that is not a definition of patriotism nothing else can be.
BONUS BONUS: My interview with Agency France Press on Snowden and whistleblowing.
I enjoyed a recent interview with the blog Random Thoughts. A sample:
Teri: In light of new reports on the wasted money we spent on Iraq’s reconstruction, I suspect you got an apology from the State Department. Did you?
Van Buren: You’re a funny person. My apology may have been lost in the mail.
Teri: You’ve worked for the State Department under a number of Secretaries. Who was the most effective of these, in your opinion?
Van Buren: Ironically, the first half of the Colin Powell tenure. Powell, likely because of his military background where caring for the troops is an essential requirement for any leader, was the only Secretary to make positive changes to the life and work of the rank and file. Powell, for example, overruled Diplomatic Security’s ban on the internet inside of the State Department. Security claimed it was dangerous to info security while Powell said the reality of our modern world demanded access. Without him State employees would still be getting their news a day late in paper form. The irony, of course, is that it was Powell who plunged State into Iraq and thus helped to destroy the rank and file by wasting their time, energy and lives inside that failed war.
Have a look at the whole discussion on Random Thoughts.
Though the interview took place almost two years ago, a friend only recently sent me a transcript of my talk with NPR’s Fresh Air. For the historical record as well as a cheap and easy blog post, here it is.
National Public Radio (NPR), September 26, 2011 Monday, FRESH AIR 12:00 PM EST NPR
THE GREEDY BATTLE FOR IRAQ’S ‘HEARTS AND MINDS’
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. How would you feel about spending millions of Americans’ tax dollars to build a chicken processing plant in Iraq that never processed any chickens except to impress visiting journalists? That’s just one of the projects described in a new book by our guest Peter Van Buren, a veteran foreign service officer who gives a ground-level account of the effort to rebuild and stabilize Iraq.
Van Buren has spent much of his career in the Far East, when in 2009, he joined a surge of State Department personnel headed to Iraq to assist in reconstruction. Van Buren’s experience working on a provincial reconstruction team is a dispiriting tale of waste, corruption and sometimes comically misguided approaches to the mission of improving the lives of Iraqis.
His account isn’t kind to American policymakers, and as you’ll hear, he has strong feelings about the futility of his efforts. We contacted a spokesperson for the State Department who declined to respond to Van Buren’s book except to say that the author’s views are his own and not necessarily those of the State Department.
Van Buren’s book is called “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Peter Van Buren, welcome to FRESH AIR. You were in the State Department for more than 20 years before you went to Iraq. Tell us just a little bit about your career.
PETER VAN BUREN: My work was primarily concerned with what I like to think is the benign side of empire. I helped American citizens overseas. When people got arrested, when people fell into trouble one way or the other outside the United States, it was my job to help get them out of trouble, to visit them jail, when people passed away to make sure their remains got back to their loved ones. It was very rewarding work.
It was social work on steroids at times, but dealing with people and being able to help them was very fulfilling, very satisfying.
DAVIES: I read you won a Superior Honor Award for helping a rape victim in Japan. What was that about?
VAN BUREN: It was a terrible tragedy. An American citizen suffered a very violent attack in Japan, and it was our responsibility to help her. She decided very courageously that she wanted to go through the very difficult process of seeing her attacker put in jail, and it was a very difficult experience for her. It was my obligation to assist her with this, and the two of us together got her through it.
It was a difficult process in that many times the language that she needed to use to describe what had happened to her was language that was not typically heard in a Japanese courtroom. There were translation problems. There were times when the prosecution attempted to paint her as a person who might have brought on this attack somehow herself.
But we were able to get her through that and see that justice was done. Her attacker went to jail, and it was a moment when we really understood what it meant to have an American embassy overseas that was there to support you. She probably could have done it without us, but it was an honor to have done it with her.
DAVIES: Now, when you went to Iraq, this was in 2009, and this is far beyond the days when a lot of people would say American military policy was so misguided. By then, a lot of people think we had figured this out. The military was much more committed to friendly engagement with the Iraqi population and reconstruction and winning hearts and minds.
So you’re there to do good things, to help rebuild the country. But as you tell the story, you certainly weren’t out among the people. Just tell us a little bit about your living kind of situation and how that meshed with the mission that you had.
VAN BUREN: What a PRT, Provincial Reconstruction Team, was supposed to do, was to operate at a grassroots level, embedded with the U.S. military, to bring stability and economic success to all of Iraq, particularly operating outside of the major cities. One of the key problems was the inability to reconstruct something while it was essentially still falling apart.
The American presence in Iraq basically had three components. You had the military command, which sat in a place called Victory Base – the Army has no irony in its naming conventions – and they had a very limited view of things. They were very isolated.
You had the American embassy, the world’s largest embassy, surrounded by the world’s largest walls that kept both bad guys and reality out. The joke was that the embassy kept an eye on events in Iraq from the roof.
And then you had the Provisional Reconstruction Teams, me. We were – are small groups of people – we were embedded with military units. We would roll out in military convoys, typically riding in a vehicle called an MRAP, which is like a giant monster truck. It has all sorts of armor and special electronics on it that make it less vulnerable to the IEDs, which plague the campaign in Iraq for its entire life.
It had machine guns on the top and full of soldiers with their game faces on; guns, rifles, grenades, the whole manner of stuff. Myself, I would wear body armor and a helmet just like the soldiers would. I wasn’t armed. I didn’t carry a weapon. But we made quite an impression on people when we rolled through town.
Sometimes when we rolled through the center of town, we made quite an impression because our vehicles were tall enough that they tore down all the electrical and phone lines that were strung across the roads. Sometimes we made quite an impression when we roared through fields and left ruts where there had been rice or wheat planted. And oftentimes we made quite an impression by attracting a lot of attention to people just by our presence.
It was difficult to say that we ever could have a normal interaction with anyone. The mere presence of us made us look like aliens descending from armored spaceships in the middle of nowhere. Every interaction with every Iraqi took place with soldiers with weapons standing around. Oftentimes, I was told to leave my body armor and helmet on while I was speaking with the Iraqi people for my own safety.
We rarely could stay in any one place for very long for fear of attracting too much attention and an attack. Setting up appointments was very difficult because it was dangerous to tell people too far in advance that we were going to be arriving. We didn’t want to give the bad guys too much time to get ready.
And under those conditions, the ability to meet with people, to interact with them, was a failure.
DAVIES: And I believe kind of one of your first interactions with Iraqis involved this fellow named – I think he had the nickname McBlazer, and there was a particular issue you had to work out. Tell us that story.
VAN BUREN: State Department people love to wear blue blazers with brass buttons. It’s almost kind of a uniform. And one of the Iraqis that we interacted with regularly had adopted this as his form of dress. And so he was nicknamed McBlazer among us.
The embassy constantly was tasking us to put on presentations, shows, lectures. We were going to tell Iraqis how things were going to work. Here’s how democracy works. Here’s what women should be doing. Here’s the way that you should be running your businesses.
These were hard to put on, and it required a lot of logistical arrangements, things that we couldn’t possibly do on our own in a country where we couldn’t travel freely, where telephone service was sporadic and where there was no infrastructure for us to work with.
It became necessary for us to seek out these middlemen, these operators, carpetbaggers, slick guys like McBlazer who for money could make things happen.
The very first day, as I arrived and met my team, the very first task I was handed was to commit fraud so that we could properly pay off McBlazer for the last thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
VAN BUREN: Now, fraud is a nasty word to use…
DAVIES: Well, let me just interrupt here. What do you mean commit fraud? What did you have to do?
VAN BUREN: Well, it turns out that there limits the State Department put on how much we could spend on refreshments. This was very important because without refreshments, the Iraqis wouldn’t come to our meetings. We simply couldn’t get a crowd unless we fed them. To feed them costs money, and the cost of that food oftentimes exceeded the maximums that we were allowed to spend.
This doesn’t stop a guy like McBlazer. He simply created fake receipts for printing that covered the cost of the food. And my very first diplomatic action in Iraq was to be told by my colleagues to sign the fake receipts so that we could pay McBlazer for the food, which we had to use to bribe the Iraqis to come to the meeting so that the embassy would be satisfied that we were reconstructing Iraq.
DAVIES: And did you object?
VAN BUREN: It seemed like a wrong way to get started to me, and I have this aversion to going to jail for fraud, and so I said no, I’m not going to sign that. This was a problem. Well, McBlazer, it turns out, is married into a very powerful family that’s connected to some very powerful Kurds, who happen to be connected to a lot of guys that apparently used to work for the mafia until they found out working in Iraq was more profitable.
And it was not going to be in our best interest to crisscross on McBlazer. In fact, McBlazer offered that he was setting up conferences for all of the PRTs all over Iraq and that if we didn’t pay him the money that he wanted, he was going to stop servicing the other PRTs. And so simultaneously with my arrival to Iraq, I was going to be responsible for the countrywide breakdown of a system that had been running smoothly for about a year.
VAN BUREN: Yeah, I signed.
DAVIES: OK. So you could see some immediate frustrations with what was happening in this State Department effort to assist the Iraqi people. But there were enormous needs around you. You write about trash disposal. Do you want to give us a little picture of what you saw?
VAN BUREN: I’d never seen so much garbage in one place in my life. It was almost as if the only thing being manufactured in Iraq was garbage. This oftentimes didn’t jive with other things. People were not very wealthy. People in fact in many cases were quite poor. But suddenly, everywhere I looked, there was garbage, garbage and garbage.
The garbage was a problem for the Iraqis. It was a problem for us. The bad guys used to hide bombs in it that would catch us as we drove down the road. So one day, we were told it was going to be our job to clean up the garbage.
Now, I’m a pretty energetic guy, but it seemed like I was going to need some help. Well, not a problem. There were oftentimes sheiks who would appear, sometimes without us even calling them, who would offer to take care of whatever problems we happened to have, in this case the garbage. They would be able to, for a very small fee, get their entire extended family and their family’s families out there to pick up the trash for us.
It was an absolute amazing thing until we found, of course, that we were overpaying these people so much that we had distorted the local labor market, and in fact several shops had closed down because people found it more profitable to have us pay them to pick up trash than to operate small businesses.
DAVIES: And of course they were temporary jobs, right?
VAN BUREN: They were temporary jobs in the sense that when we got bored with picking up trash, or some other shiny object caught our attention, we moved onto a different project. The garbage piled up. The city of Baghdad generates hundreds of tons of garbage every day.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. His book is “We Meant Well.” We’ll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. He is a veteran in the State Department who spent a year in Iraq on Iraqi reconstruction. He’s written a new book called “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”
There was also a tremendous need for clean water and sewage treatment, and it just seems like so obvious that meeting these basic needs would have done a lot to build meaningful relationships with the Iraqi people. Do you want to tell us – I mean, there’s an example you tell of a treatment plant in Nahrawan, I believe, northeast of Baghdad.
VAN BUREN: Nahrawan.
DAVIES: OK. Yeah, go ahead.
VAN BUREN: Ever since the Romans had occupied this part of the world, providing water to people was what government did. It was the essence of surviving in the desert. Saddam had built a number of water plants, oftentimes with Soviet or other people’s money, and these water plants had pumped along without much success from the 1960s on up. Some of them were older than I was.
We were told to go out and see what we could do about a water plant not far from where we living out in the desert. The great news was that way back in the good days of 2003 and ’04, when people were still enthusiastic for the war, apparently the Japanese had promised to pay for repairing this water plant.
This was good news. But when we contacted them, it turned out that they neither remembered paying for it nor had any interested in driving out through the dangerous parts of Iraq to see a water plant. It fell on our shoulders to go out and check up on things.
The water plant was run by a wonderful gentleman who I hope to the bottom of my heart is still alive somewhere in Iraq. We called him The Engineer. And The Engineer had been working at this particular water plant since the 1960s. He would tell us these wonderful stories about how during the glory days, Saddam would send him off to Russia or Bulgaria for water plant training, and he would trade his then-valuable Iraqi dinars for rubles and be very popular with the women that he would meet and come home with suitcases full of vodka. They were good times for him.
The war did not work out well. He had a number of people on his staff killed in the sectarian violence. Another larger group disappeared, some of them possibly killed; a lot of them running away to relatives in Jordan or nearby countries.
But throughout this all, The Engineer stayed at his post throughout the sectarian violence and the worst years of the war, even though the plant had long since ceased to process any fresh water, and raw sewage ran right through it into the beautiful Tigris River.
The Engineer was still optimistic, and when we arrived there, he brought out these incredibly dense three-ring binders full of plans that were drawn up by a Japanese engineering firm in Tokyo that had never been to Iraq and never seen his plant. But these were the plans for the water of the future.
The Engineer needed nothing from us except a lot of money and a lot of help. The way he saw it, he was going to work this all out by hiring an Iraqi contractor who would actually be a front for a Turkish country, which would hire Arabic-speaking Jordanian engineers to bring Chinese equipment into Iraq – rebuild his water plant.
He then planned on the Chinese equipment being left behind so he could sell it off on the black market and raise enough money for maintenance of the plant because unfortunately, our planning never extended past the end of next year, and we had no money for long-term maintenance.
DAVIES: So what happened?
VAN BUREN: Nothing. Nothing happened. The problem is, is that you can’t, with all the best intentions in the world, simply rebuild a water network. Our plant was one plant, was one plant in a long line of facilities that were necessary to take water out of the Tigris, process it, bring it all the way into Baghdad, then take the dirty water out, bring it all the way back, process it and bring it back in, put it back into the river.
This involved hundreds of facilities. We had authority to try to fix one of them.
DAVIES: It sounds like this was a case where there was a big, important problem like sewage treatment and water purification, but that you didn’t have nearly the kind of resources that you would need to do something on that scale. People needed to think bigger?
VAN BUREN: We were never able to do thing on a large enough scale to make a difference because the thinking was never long-term. Everyone in Iraq was there on a series of one year tours, myself included. Everyone was told that they needed to create accomplishments, that we needed to document our success, that we had to produce a steady stream of photos of accomplishments and pictures of smiling Iraqis and metrics and charts.
It was impossible under these circumstances to do anything as long-term as a water and sewer project, particularly with the need for our work to dovetail with work being done to the left and to the right of us.
We rarely thought past next week’s situation update. The embassy would rarely engage with us on a project that wasn’t flashy enough to involve photographs or bringing a journalist out to shoot some video of something that looked good. The willingness to do long-term work, to do the very slow work that reconstruction and development takes place, the idea that development work is a pyramid, you build the base that creates the possibility of a top, never existed in our world.
DAVIES: Now, there were some efforts to do things on a smaller scale. They bought some of these Mobile Maxes, a trailer-mounted, what, a water filtration system. What happened there?
VAN BUREN: One day, a soldier literally trolling through the Internet came across something called Mobile Max. Mobile Max seemed like the solution to our problems. It was a solar-powered, trailer-mounted water purification device. You put the hose into dirty water, the sun shone on Mobile Max, and clean water would pour out the other end.
The soldier told his boss, who told his commanding officer, who told some other people, and believe it or not, in the time it takes me to write a letter home to my wife, we found that the Army was buying five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes and paying to have them shipped all the way around the world to the middle of the desert at a place called Forward Operating Base Hammer.
It took months and months for these things to arrive, and the day that they showed up, it was like a fair at the base. They came on trailers. They were bright blue. People came out of their workstations and sleeping quarters to see this arrive, as if the circus had come to town.
DAVIES: And what happened?
VAN BUREN: We set the first Mobile Max up, put the hose into a hole that we had dug and found water in, waited for the sun to warm up the engine. There was a hush, and poured out of the other end of it – nothing. It turns out that the groundwater in Iraq is too salty for Mobile Max. Mobile Max can clean all sorts of naughty stuff out of water, but it can’t turn salty water into drinking water, and so it was a complete failure.
DAVIES: And you had 25 of these things. What became of them?
VAN BUREN: The five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes were moved off to a corner of the base where they were parked in very neat rows and left to sit there for the course of the year that I was in Iraq. I’m told that soon after I left, and we closed the PRT down, the commanding general forces there, General Odierno, came out, asked what those blue things were, was told the story and ordered them to be gotten rid of.
My understanding is one of them ended up in a sheik’s backyard, where it did some good work for him and his family. No one seems to know what happened to the other ones.
GROSS: Peter Van Buren is the author of the new book “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” We’ll hear more of his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of our show. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to Dave Davies’ interview with Peter Van Buren, the author of “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” It’s about the sometimes comically misguided projects, wasted money and corruption he encountered while working with the State Department team on reconstruction efforts in Iraq in 2009.
DAVIES: Now this brings up the subject of all the money that was available. Did you ever want for cash for these initiatives?
VAN BUREN: Working for the government for 23 years, the only constant was there’s never money. There’s never enough money to do all the things we wanted and there were times when I bought my own office supplies and stole yellow stickies from my kid’s school so I had them in the office because it was easier than trying to get money for it.
In Iraq we had money everywhere. It was literally in boxes that you had to step over. At one point in time, I had $100,000 in cash in a small safe in my office. I felt like a drug dealer, I kept pulling out bundles of money. There was so much money that the Iraqis invented a new slang word in Arabic that means a large pile of hundred dollar bills. What’s the word?
My pronunciation may not be precise, but I believe it’s duftar.
DAVIES: A stack of Benjamins, huh?
VAN BUREN: A large pile of Benjamins. They were at first the most convenient way for us to put money out. There was no banking system. There were no electronic transfers. There were no checking accounts, no credit cards. And so when we needed to give someone money, we literally gave them money. I would travel around with $50,000 in a paper bag to hand out to one of the people who was taking over our project. We would have these counting sessions where we had to account for our money, where we would have $20,000, $30,000 out on a desk. This was all tracked on paper and through some Excel spreadsheets.
Most of the folks I worked with were honest people and I don’t think we lost any money. But somewhere along the way millions and millions of dollars were just casually misplaced. The Army lost 60 million dollars at one point in time. And over the course of the eight years of the Iraq Project, the United States has spent 63 billion dollars on the reconstruction.
DAVIES: And there were reports by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that documented literally billions in waste and mixing funds. You were on this provincial reconstruction team doing the reconstruction, but you were embedded with an Army unit. I think the 82nd Airborne, right? And how much, to what extent did the Army actually call the shots in these efforts? Was the State Department in charge, or was the Army in charge, or was it a negotiation? How did it work?
VAN BUREN: The original plan was that we were to be equals. The State Department and the Army were to work as equals on these projects and work as equals in making decisions. The problem was we couldn’t leave the base unless the Army took us out. We couldn’t make a phone call, use a computer, make a photocopy or get a meal without the Army’s permission and consent. And so in situations where you couldn’t get along with your colonel, the colonel in charge of your unit, you couldn’t do your job. It created a terribly unequal relationship. The joke was that we practiced more diplomacy inside the wire than outside.
DAVIES: You write about one colonel that had – who really liked the idea of passing out humanitarian assistance bags, HA bags. Explain what they were and why they were appealing.
VAN BUREN: One of the problems that plagued the whole reconstruction program, from its sad birth to whenever it finally passes away, it was the overall concept. The State Department imagined this as remaking an entire nation. The Army had a little harder time getting its head around that concept and tended to think in smaller units.
One colonel that I worked with decided that the best way to win the hearts and minds was to give away stuff. Everybody likes free stuff. He characterized this as a humanitarian gesture, and the project was called HA, humanitarian assistance. What would happen is the Army would load up some trucks with food bags. The amount of food in there might have given a family of four a meal or two. It was nothing special, nothing elaborate. He would load up these food bags, drive out to some village, and hand them out to people.
What you saw in these instances was very interesting. If you imagine yourself as a camera and you focus very closely, you saw happy smiling soldiers handing food bags over to young children or women, who were smiling as they accepted them. If you zoomed out a little bit, you found that the soldiers who weren’t in camera range were probably not smiling. You zoomed out a little further and you found that the Iraqi men would stay in the background and give us kind of hard stares. This is a country where pride, where self-image is very important to people, and being handed food by Americans who had invaded their country and in many cases caused damage and violence around them was a shock to the Iraqi people, was a blow to their pride.
Imagine if the Chinese army appeared one day in Minneapolis and started handing out food to the people there. Would Americans feel proud about that?
DAVIES: Now why did the colonel do this? And was this ever evaluated? Did anybody ever look at whether this had any positive impact?
VAN BUREN: The chances are that your listener’s thinking about this constitutes the only time anything was evaluated what we did there. The entire process was one of improvisation, of please do something because something might work. There was never anybody who said, hey, that’s not working. Let’s not do that again. Or this seems to have promise, let’s keep doing that. What we did was never examined, was never looked at. There was no sense of output. Everything we did we did for us. We did it for our personal satisfaction. We did it because we felt good doing it. We did it because we were told to do it. We did it because we wanted to get promoted and patted on the head. The sense was it wasn’t about the Iraqis. It was about us.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. His book is called “We Meant Well.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. He is a veteran Foreign Service officer in the U.S. State Department who spent a year in Iraq. His book about his frustrations with the Iraqi reconstruction effort is called “We Meant Well.”
Did you have any contact with the media? I mean could you give them a sense of what was really going on?
VAN BUREN: I saw very little of the media. And the embassy made sure that whenever someone from the media did go out into the field that the journey and the experience was stage managed to the final degree. We did have one experience that might illustrate how this works. The largest amount of money I ever spent was with the Army, a two million dollar chicken processing plant. The idea was that instead of these systems that had been in place for about 5,000 years, where people bought live chickens in the market, we were going to take those chickens and cut them up and put them in styrofoam and plastic just like you’d get at the Safeway. Problem was that that didn’t work out very well. The farmers were had a system of selling to the markets. The people didn’t have refrigeration at home to handle cutup chicken. And there was Brazilian frozen chicken being imported at that time that underpriced us. So the factory didn’t produce any chicken.
One day we were told that the journalist was coming out and wanted to see our factory in action. This was a moment of panic for us, because we had not really admitted to the embassy at that point that it wasn’t working.
DAVIES: I just want to understand this. So from scratch you imported all this mechanized equipment and built a chicken processing plant that simply was sitting idle?
VAN BUREN: That’s correct. Because when these projects were conceived – and this project actually was in conception long before I arrived, it had taken so long to spec out and to create – no one considered where those chickens were going to come from and how they were going to be paid for. And no one considered what was going to happen to our processed chicken once we put it in the plastic.
For example, there were no transportation networks. There were no trucks that could carry frozen or chilled food around Iraq. And even if we had those trucks, the roadways made it impossible for them to travel very long distances. No one bothered to figure out how we were going to buy the chickens, how we were going to pay for them, which farmers were going to sell, whether the farmers needed to raise the chickens specifically for us. None of that was thought out. Simply, we built something and hoped it would work in either direction.
DAVIES: All right. So it’s time to prove to a journalist that you’ve done something good here. what happened?
VAN BUREN: This was a real problem. We contacted the Iraqi sheikh who had taken possession of the chicken processing plant and explained our problem. He was a very clever man. He sent one of his sons out to the market that day and what every live chicken in about a five mile radius of the place. Lord knows what they paid for it, brought all those chickens in and the plant was humming like the middle of a speedway when the journalists arrived. We processed through about 150 chickens that day.
DAVIES: And nobody ever caught on. No one was the wiser.
VAN BUREN: The good news was is that it was 100 percent productivity increase from the day before…
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
VAN BUREN: …so we were kind of happy about that. It turned out that the chicken that we actually served the journalists was bought at a different place, because we weren’t quite sure if our machinery was clean enough and we were afraid to actually serve the person because the machinery hadn’t been used so we bought chicken someplace to serve them.
This was a problem. The problem was is that the journalists said what a great day had happened out here and other people wanted to come out and see the plant too. So, every time someone came out we had to buy chickens to run them through the plant so there was something to see. This led to a new unit of measurement – the chicken measurement. We would try to figure out who was important and who wasn’t because the chickens were expensive. So an important person might see 50 or 60 chickens processed. A journalist who comes from a smaller outlet for or a hometown newspaper, they might see 20 chickens processed. And so it became kind of a joke how many chickens we were worth.
DAVIES: Didn’t – I mean were you ever in a position to pull someone aside and say – ask them if this is running tomorrow or was running yesterday?
VAN BUREN: Dave, please don’t be upset. We would’ve given you the full 50-chicken treatment.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: No, everyone played the game.
VAN BUREN: Everyone was looking the other way. There was an understanding that you wanted to get through your tour, and the way to do that was not make waves, not ask questions. It had been running before you got there, it was going to be running after you got there. Look away like everyone else was doing and things would work out for you. The only time I got into trouble, the only time I was called into my boss was when I canceled a project.
DAVIES: Well, I was going to ask you about that. You were called on the carpet at one point. What happened?
VAN BUREN: I wasn’t spending enough money. Early on, soon after failing to properly attend to the fraudulent receipts of McBlazer, I was presented with another opportunity to excel. My colleagues had arranged for us to pay about $5,000 a head for sheep to be delivered to widows. Good idea. Widows are it’s a sad thing. We created more than enough of them ourselves in Iraq, why not help them out. We were going to give them sheep. They’d raise the sheep. Everybody would be happy. So I asked a few questions. How are we going to find the widows? Well, the guy we’re buying the sheep from will find them for us. OK. How will the widows know how to raise the sheep? Oh, the guy we’re buying the sheep from will teach the widows. OK. Who is going to pay him for that? Oh, he’s going to take the lambs from the widows so that he’ll get paid that way. It sure seemed to me that this was kind of a scam – that it was a pyramid scheme so that the guy we were buying things from was going to make all the money. I didn’t see how the widows were going to benefit, and I canceled the project.
DAVIES: And then you were what, summoned to the embassy?
VAN BUREN: This brought down the wrath of Mesopotamia on me. Because once I realized what the questions were and I started asking them, I found out that the women’s rug-making cooperative that we were paying for had devolved into child labor. I found out that most of the things that we were paying for at the vocational school were actually nonexistent; that there were no vocational classes being held, and the equipment that we had paid for had long since been trundled off and sold off on the black market. I found that many of our projects existed solely in our own minds and our checkbooks, and so I started canceling them. This did not sit well with my bosses and I was called into the embassy and reminded that my predecessors had found ways to spend money, I should find ways to spend money. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make trouble. You’re one little guy in a big operation. Do what you’re told. Get through your year. Go home. Maybe we’ll promote you.
DAVIES: And when you got that speech how did you respond?
VAN BUREN: I didn’t know what to respond. I did know how to respond. I went through a period of trying to do what I was told was the right thing. I signed off on a lot of projects that would embarrass me to explain to you in great detail right now. I spent a lot of money. At some point, I realized that that was wrong. It was not true to myself. It was not true to the integrity that I believe is important for us, and so I stopped signing projects.
I found that not saying yes and not saying no gave me enough grey zone that my year ran out before they caught up with me.
DAVIES: Have any of your colleagues in the State Department read this manuscript? How is this being received?
VAN BUREN: The State Department, as an organization, is not very happy about what I’ve done. I was required to submit an early copy of the manuscript to the State Department for them to determine that I wasn’t releasing classified information, or the more hilarious one, that I wasn’t misrepresenting this as official State Department policy. It’s pretty clear that I’m kind of speaking for myself, here.
The State Department is unhappy about this. The organization is not one that is comfortable with its private parts showing in public. This is very clear in their reaction to the WikiLeaks scandal, where suddenly the internal workings of the State Department were on display. This makes everyone very uncomfortable, and my book does something of the same. My colleagues oftentimes will privately tell me that they saw many of the same things I saw, that they were – they’re pleased that someone has written down what I wrote. But in public, many of them have shunned me, have accused me of not being fair to them, of blaming them for things that I knew were institutional. They didn’t make these same decisions because they were stupid. I didn’t make these same decisions because I was stupid. We all knew we were told to these things, and they’re a little bit angry at me for sometimes maybe labeling them as complicit in this, when they knew that they weren’t.
DAVIES: What kind of assignment do you have? Has your writing affected your work?
VAN BUREN: Unfortunately, the State Department has started an investigation against me. They claim that a link on the blog connected with this book links to a WikiLeaks document, and that constitutes disclosure of classified information. And so the security people have begun an investigation against me that will probably end in my losing my job.
DAVIES: Well, you know, one of my reactions in attempting to judge this was that when I look at your account of these events, I mean, they’re told with really telling detail, and it’s quite funny in many places. But you’re not very specific about, well, certainly people. You use only first names, or, in some cases, no names at all. You refer to people as my boss or the major.
VAN BUREN: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: Someone might say, well, aren’t you kind of fudging of the details here, and that gives you some ability to exaggerate?
VAN BUREN: To a certain extent. It’s difficult. It turns out that when you throw pies at people’s faces, they sometimes get upset about that. And so in these litigious days, it became important in many instances do not identify people by name, partially for legal reasons, partially because, in many cases, they were decent people trying to do the right thing who shouldn’t be blamed personally by name for what they did because they were following orders. They were doing the things that they were told to do.
The book that I wrote is not a scholarly text. It’s not a history. It’s not full of footnotes and things like that. It’s an impressionistic version of what I saw. It’s the rough draft of the PRP, the Provincial Reconstruction Program that I helped administer. My hope would be that someone who is better at these things can write a book that has footnotes that can chronicle in great detail and with great accuracy what happened over there. Others will fill in the details. I don’t know that it’s important to know that the major I referred to was Major Jones or Major Smith. What’s important to understand is at that time, at that place, this is what happened.
And we have your assurance that the details that you recount – I mean, the phony tours of the chicken processing plant that this…
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: …and the sheep for widows programs, all of those are as accurate as you can make them?
VAN BUREN: If you were with me, you would’ve seen the things that I wrote in this book. My hope would be that at some point, some of the other people there will feel comfortable in speaking up. I don’t doubt that someone in the State Department will claim that some of this is inaccurate, or that some of the details are exaggerated. What else can they do to defend themselves here, but try to assault my personal credibility? The book is there. The stories that I tell are there. You, as the reader, are in a position to judge them, to say this makes sense, this doesn’t make sense.
Some readers will look beyond the book to the documents that the special inspector general for Iraq has written that chronicles some of the chronic episodes of waste. Some folks will talk to their friends who served in Iraq and say, hmm, this Van Buren guy is talking about this Mobile Max thing. You were there. What do you know about that? And hopefully come to the conclusion that the stories I tell are sadly accurate, that the things I saw are sadly representative of the failures that we experienced there, that unfortunately, “We Meant Well” is true.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Van Buren, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
VAN BUREN: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Peter Van Buren, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Van Buren’s book is called “We Meant Well.” After recording the interview, we called the State Department. A spokesperson declined to comment on the book, saying only that it represents the author’s views and not those of the State Department. He also said the department never comments on whether an employee is under investigation. You can read an excerpt of “We Meant Well” on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the Bangles’ new album. This is FRESH AIR.
As a public service to Obama and his spanking-new National Security Advisor Susan Rice (Rice’s autobiography should be titled Failing Upward by Sucking Upward), here is a handy checklist to consult before deciding to intervene further in Syria.
Is it Iraq again? That went well.
Does it have oil?
Does it pose a direct threat to America, i.e., knife to our throat?
Can you define specifically what U.S. interests are at stake (no fair just citing generic “world peace” or “evil dictator”)?
Is Syria’s evil dictator somehow super-worse than the many other evil dictators scattered across the world where the U.S. is not intervening?
Did Syria attack any U.S. forces somewhere? Kidnap Americans? Commit 9/11?
Does the U.S. have a specific, detailed follow-on plan for what happens if Assad departs?
Does the U.S. have a specific plan to ensure weapons given to the rebels, some of whom are openly al Qaeda, won’t migrate out of Syria as they did in Libya?
Does the U.S. believe its secret deal with the rebels to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons after they take power is airtight?
Can the U.S. tell with accuracy the “good” rebels from the “bad” rebels?
Has the U.S. considered in detail what affect a rebel (Sunni) victory in Syria will have on chaotic Iraq next door?
Why are Syria’s chemical weapon so different than say North Korea’s or anyone else’s that intervention is a good idea?
Extra Credit Questions
If the U.S. is regime-changing in Syria, why does the U.S. still diplomatically recognize the Syrian government? Discuss.
Why did the U.S. render prisoners to Syria for torture by Assad just a few years ago but now thinks he is an evil dictator? Discuss.
Since the American electorate overwhelmingly chose Obama over McCain in 2008, why is Obama acting more like McCain every day? Discuss.
Exactly why, after Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and drone wars everywhere, does the U.S. need to get sucked in to yet another Middle East quagmire? Discuss.
Obama and Rice, if the answer was “No” to any of the above questions, you should not intervene in Syria.
Bonus: The blogging software I use for this site requires “tags” be created to mark posts for searches. When I first started, the only country tag I needed was “Iraq.” Since then I have had to add Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Iran, multiple African nations and now Syria as places America is openly at war.
Along with the odd threat or hate mail (a few people hilariously misunderstand the book’s title We Meant Well as being serious and chastise me for supporting the Iraq War), some interesting things pop up. Here’s one, a report from the front lines of freedom in Iraq:
I work in Iraq and I’ve seen first hand the waste and abuse you chronicled so well during the “reconstruction”. I think you once called the US Mission in Iraq a ‘self-licking ice cream cone’ — a self-contained, self-aggrandizing system of little actual use to Iraqis. An apt analogy.
Here’s something you’d appreciate:
A couple of days ago, just minutes after a briefing on the latest death toll from sectarian violence (50 killings in one night;
520 close to 1000 total this month) in Iraq, I attended a meeting with people who were enthusiastically discussing the massive uptick in “likes” on our mission’s Facebook page.
As journalism, I checked Facebook to find that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has some 137,000 “likes.” Their banner graphic celebrates breaking 100,000. As a comparison, retired porn star Jenna Jameson’s Facebook page as 566,703 likes. Maybe the Embassy needs to show more skin?
So, as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad remains the world’s largest and most expensive diplomatic mission, we salute the brave boys and girls out there who are still more focused on their Facebook likes than Rome burning down around them. To Victory!
It was one of my great pleasures to have dinner with Daniel Ellsberg (and several others supporting justice for Bradley Manning) this week.
Ellsberg is the prototypical whistleblower, a former Marine and serious government official supporting the government’s way until something– in Ellsberg’s case, learning the truth about U.S. conduct in the Vietnam War– so shocked his conscience that he was compelled to speak out. In Ellsberg’s case, that resulted in the “Pentagon Papers” and the landmark legal decisions defending the right of the New York Times to publish them. That those same legal rights are now under attack by the Obama Administration, and likely to figure significantly in the Manning case, just emphasized the importance of what Ellsberg risked his freedom to do.
I wrote an open letter to Dan, tracing a small part of my own political awakening to his brave actions. Maybe worth a read.
In person Dan proved to still be an amazing intellect at age 82. Though his hearing has faded, his mind is razor. Talking politics with him, from Lyndon Johnson to Bradley Manning, was like playing chess against Fischer, discussing writing with Steinbeck or shooting pool against Fats.
Dan also possesses an amazing stock of jokes, some a bit naughty, which he tells with some skill. One involved a leprechaun (you had to be there) and Ellsberg slipped in and out of an Irish accent as effortlessly as he skewed Richard Nixon moments earlier.
The next night I joined Ellsberg, Jesselyn Radack, Michael Ratner, Tom Drake, Ethan McCord and others at the Unitarian All Souls Church in Washington DC to speak out for justice for whistleblower Bradley Manning. Manning’s trial, after his three years of confinement, finally begins June 3. The speeches were followed by interviews with the BBC Radio World Service. The American media, who certainly profited from Manning’s whistleblowing, skipped the event.
Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com
What do words mean in a post-9/11 world? Apart from the now clichéd Orwellian twists that turn brutal torture into mere enhanced interrogation, the devil is in the details. Robert MacLean is a former air marshal fired for an act of whistleblowing. He has continued to fight over seven long years for what once would have passed as simple justice: getting his job back. His is an all-too-twenty-first-century story of the extraordinary lengths to which the U.S. government is willing to go to thwart whistleblowers.
First, the government retroactively classified a previously unclassified text message to justify firing MacLean. Then it invoked arcane civil service procedures, including an “interlocutory appeal” to thwart him and, in the process, enjoyed the approval of various courts and bureaucratic boards apparently willing to stamp as “legal” anything the government could make up in its own interest.
And yet here’s the miracle at the heart of this tale: MacLean refused to quit, when ordinary mortals would have thrown in the towel. Now, with a recent semi-victory, he may not only have given himself a shot at getting his old job back, but also create a precedent for future federal whistleblowers. In the post-9/11 world, people like Robert MacLean show us how deep the Washington rabbit hole really goes.
The Whistle Is Blown
MacLean joined the Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) in 2001 after stints with the Air Force and the Border Patrol. In July 2003, all marshals received a briefing about a possible hijacking plot. Soon after, the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which oversees FAMS, sent an unencrypted, open-air text message to the cell phones of the marshals cancelling several months of missions for cost-cutting reasons. MacLean became concerned that cancelling missions during a hijacking alert might create a dangerous situation for the flying public. He complained to his supervisor and to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general, but each responded that nothing could be done.
It was then that he decided to blow the whistle, hoping that public pressure might force the TSA to reinstate the marshals’ flights. So MacLean talked to a reporter, who broadcast a story criticizing the TSA’s decision and, after 11 members of Congress joined in the criticism, it reversed itself. At this point, MacLean had not been identified as the source of the leak and so carried on with his job.
A year later, he appeared on TV in disguise, criticizing the TSA dress code and its special boarding policies, which he believed allowed marshals to be easily identified by other passengers. This time, the TSA recognized his voice and began an investigation that revealed he had also released the 2003 text message. He was fired in April 2006. Although the agency had not labeled that message as “sensitive security information” (SSI) when it was sent in 2003, in August 2006, months after MacLean’s firing, it issued a retroactive order stating that the text’s content was indeed SSI.
A Whistleblower’s Catch-22
That disclosing the contents of an unclassified message could get someone fired for disclosing classified information is the sort of topsy-turvy situation which could only exist in the post-9/11 world of the American national security state.
Under the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA), a disclosure prohibited by law negates whistleblower protections. That, of course, makes it in the government’s interest to define disclosure as broadly as possible and to classify as much of its internal communications for as long as it possibly can. No wonder that in recent years the classification of government documents has soared, reaching a record total of 92,064,862 in 2011.
Officially, the U.S. government recognizes only three basic levels of classification: confidential, secret, and top secret. Since 9/11, however, various government agencies have created multiple freestyle categories of secrecy like “SSI,” “Law Enforcement Sensitive,” “Sensitive But Unclassified,” and the more colorful “Eyes Only.” All of these are outside the normal codification system; all are hybrids that casually seek to incorporate the full weight of the formal law. There are currently 107 designations just for “sensitive” information. In addition to those labels, there exist more than 130 sets of extra “handling requirements” that only deepen the world of government secrecy.
At issue for MacLean was not only the retroactive classification of a text message already in the public domain, but what classified could possibly mean in an era when everything related to the national security state was slipping into the shadows. Such questions are hardly semantic or academic. MacLean’s case hinges on how they are answered.
The case against Army Private Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks is, for example, intimately tied up in them. The military hides behind classification to block access to Manning’s “public” trial. With WikiLeaks, despite more than 100,000 U.S. State Department diplomatic cables being available to anyone anywhere on the web, the government continues to insist that they remain “classified” and cannot even be rereleased in response to requests. Potential federal employees were warned to stay away from the cables online, and the State Department even blocked TomDispatch from its staff to shield them from alleged WikiLeaks content (some of which was linked to and discussed, but none of which was actually posted at the site).
With author Tony Shaffer, the government retroactively classified its own account of why he was given the Bronze Star and his standard deployment orders to Afghanistan after he published an uncomplimentary book about American actions there. The messy case of alleged “hacktivist” Barrett Brown includes prosecution for “disclosing” classified material simply by linking to it at places where it had already been posted online; and, while still at the State Department, I was once accused of the same thing by the government.
In MacLean’s case, over a period of seven years, the legality of the TSA firing him for using an only-later-classified text was upheld. Legal actions included hearings before administrative judges, the Merit Systems Protections Board twice, that interlocutory appeal, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The sum of these decisions amid a labyrinth of judicial bureaucracies demands the use of the term Kafkaesque. MacLean, so the general judgment went, should have known that the text message he planned to leak was a classified document, even when it wasn’t (yet). As a result, he should also have understood that his act would not be that of a whistleblower alerting the public to possible danger, but of a criminal risking public safety by exposing government secrets. If that isn’t the definition of a whistleblower’s catch-22, what is?
What such a twisted interpretation by the various courts, boards, and bodies meant was chillingly laid out in an amicus brief on behalf of MacLean filed by the United States Office of Special Counsel (a small, lonely U.S. government entity charged with protecting whistleblowers):
“Whistleblowers should not have to guess whether information that they reasonably believe evidences waste, fraud, abuse, illegalities or public dangers might be later designated as SSI [unclassified sensitive security information] and therefore should not be disclosed. Rather than making the wrong guess, a would-be whistleblower will likely choose to remain silent to avoid risking the individual’s employment.”
Seven Years Later…
In 2011, five years after he had been fired as an air marshal, MacLean’s case finally reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Two full years after that, in April 2013, the court handed down a decision that may yet provide justice for Robert MacLean — and for future whistleblowers. While awkwardly upholding previous decisions that the government can indeed retroactively classify information, even documents in categories like SSI that exist outside the government’s official framework for classification and secrecy, the court tackled a more basic question: Was Robert MacLean a whistleblower anyway, entitled to protection for his act of conscience?
Here lies the conflict at the heart of just about every whistleblower case — between the public’s right (and need) to know and the (at times legitimate) need for secrecy. The government typically argues that individuals should not be allowed to decide for themselves what remains secret and what doesn’t, or chaos would result. At the same time, in a post-9/11 world of increasing secrecy, the loss of the right to know, and the massive over-classification of documents, the “conflict” has become ever more one-sided. If everything can be considered a classified secret document too precious for Americans to know about, and nothing classified can be disclosed, then the summary effect is that nothing inside the government can ever be shown to the public.
The court found that while the Transportation Safety Administration could legally apply any classification it wanted to information any time it wanted, even retroactively, simply slapping on such a label did not necessarily prohibit disclosure. Absent an actual law in MacLean’s case mentioning SSI, a term created bureaucratically, not congressionally, there could be no Whistleblower Protection Act-excepting prohibition. In other words, MacLean could still be a whistleblower.
One of MacLean’s lawyers, Tom Devine, told me the decision “restored enforceability for the Whistleblower Protection Act’s public free speech rights. It ruled that only Congress has the authority to remove whistleblower rights. Agency-imposed restraints are not relevant for WPA rights.”
“With this precedential decision,” MacLean explained to me, “agencies can no longer cancel out Whistleblower Protection Act rights with their semi-secret markings like SSI, Law Enforcement Sensitive, etcetera.”
In a concurring opinion, United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit Judge Evan Wallach was even clearer: “Mr. MacLean presented substantial evidence that he was not motivated by personal gain but by the desire to protect the public… I concur to emphasize that the facts alleged, if proven, allege conduct at the core of the Whistleblower Protection Act.”
MacLean’s case now returns to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The board is a complex piece of bureaucracy inside the already complicated federal government personnel system. In simple terms, it is supposed to be a place to appeal personnel actions, such as alleged unfair hirings and firings. It thus serves as a kind of watchdog over the sprawling federal human resources empire. The Board now has the court-ordered specific charge to “determine whether Mr. MacLean’s disclosure qualifies for WPA protection.”
Note as well that this case could continue without end for years more, traveling on “appeal” back through the federal judicial bureaucracy and the courts. And remember that this, too, is an advantage to a government that wants ever less known about itself. If, as a federal employee, you are watching a case like MacLean’s (or Thomas Drake’s, or Franz Gayle’s, or Morris Davis’s, or John Kiriakou’s, or even my own small version of this), then you can’t help noticing that the act of whistleblowing could leave you: a) out on your ear; b) prosecuted for a criminal act and/or c) with your life embroiled for years in the intricacies of your own never-ending case. None of this is exactly an encouragement to federal employees to blow that whistle.
Whistleblowers and Secrecy
Threats to whistleblowers abound, so any positive step, however minimalist or reversible, is important. Entering the White House pledging to head the most transparent administration in history, Barack Obama has, in fact, gone after more national security whistleblowers, often using the draconian Espionage Act, than all previous administrations combined.
His Justice Department has repeatedly tried to prosecute whistleblowers, crudely lumping them in with actual spies and claiming they endanger Americans (and sometimes “the troops”) by their actions. In addition, through the ongoing case of Berry v. Conyers, Obama has sought to expand the definition of “national security worker” to potentially include thousands of additional federal employees. Many employees who occupy truly sensitive jobs in the intelligence community (for example, real-world spies at the CIA) are exempt from being granted whistleblower status. They also cannot appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board if fired. By seeking to expand that exemption to a significantly larger group of people who may work at some federal agency, but in non-sensitive positions, Obama is also functionally moving to shrink the pool of potential whistleblowers. In Berry v. Conyers, for example, the persons Obama seeks to exempt as occupying sensitive jobs are merely an accounting technician and a commissary worker at an Air Force base. Neither of them even hold security clearances.
What happens with MacLean’s case potentially affects every future whistleblower. If the mere presence of a pseudo-classification on an item, even applied retroactively, negates whistleblower protections, it means dark days ahead for the right of the citizenry to know what the government is doing (or how it’s misbehaving) in its name. If so, no act of whistleblowing could be considered protected, since all the government would have to do to unprotect it is classify whatever was disclosed retroactively and wash its hands of the miscreant. Federal employees, not a risk-taking bunch to begin with, will react accordingly.
This is what gives MacLean’s case special meaning. While the initial decision on his fate will occur in the bowels of the somewhat obscure Merit Systems Protections Board, it will set a precedent that will surely find its way into higher courts on more significant cases. Amid a lot of technical legal issues, it all boils down to something very simple: Should whistleblower protections favor the conscience of a concerned federal employee willing to risk his job and the freedom to inform the public, or should they dissolve in the face of an unseen bureaucrat’s (retroactive) pseudo-classification decision?
Procedurally, there are many options ahead for MacLean’s case, and the government will undoubtedly contest each tiny step. Whatever happens will happen slowly. This is exactly how the government has continually done its dirty work post-9/11, throwing monkey wrenches in the gears of the legal system, twisting words, and manipulating organizations designed to deliver justice in order to deny it.
MacLean smiles at this. “I did seven years so far. I can do seven more if they want. There’s too much at stake to just give up.”
Jokes aside, here’s a serious interview on the reconstruction failures in Iraq, still relevant as we repeat the same mistakes in Afghanistan and prepare to repeat them in Syria? Yemen? and wherever. Have a listen.
More on the series, Conversations with Great Minds. The interview with Eyal Press, author of Beautiful Souls: Saying No, Breaking Ranks, and Heeding the Voice of Conscience in Dark Timesis particularly good.
Remember the guy who said you should never watch how laws or sausages are made? Here is a typical summer scene on the subway (“Metro”) in lovely Washington DC to illustrate your government. Inside the Beltway, represent ya’ll!
Male: Hey, you’re wearing pearls and a sweater in May on the Metro.
Female: Oh, you’re wearing a blue button down and khaki slacks.
Together: We should so talk!
Female: My life goal is to look like Zooey Deschanel.
Male: Mine is to live in Brooklyn. I don’t know where it is.
Male: I am totally shallow and get all my opinions from web sites I accidentally end up on.
Female: I only read web sites that mirror my own shallow thoughts and perpetuate myths I learned as an undergrad.
Together: The only adjective I know is “amazing.”
Male: GW?* (*George Washington University)
Female: UVA? (*University of Virginia)
Male: Oh my God, I got so drunk one time at a GW frat party!
Female: Me too! I did like so many Jello shots and then posted photos of myself with my roommate on Facebook. We wore fake plastic moustaches and pretended to grope each other, for irony.
Male: I randomly troll Facebook to look at such photos of girls I don’t know!
Female: UVA is so cool. My brother’s neighbor played lacrosse there.
Male: So you’re carrying around The Economist and not reading it?
Female: How’d you know! You have briefs from think tanks you don’t read.
Male: I am so busy drinking PBRs* and playing adult kickball and wearing heavy-rimmed black glasses like my Grandpa wore I don’t have any time to read. (*Pabst Blue Ribbon, drank ironically)
Female: I also wear heavy-rimmed black glasses like my Grandpa. I used to do aerobics but then I switched to yoga because it is now cool and I got to buy new outfits.
Together: We’re dedicated to remaining adolescents forever!
Male: I vote for people Jon Stewart likes.
Female: I over-pronounce Stephen Colbert’s name often!
Male: So what do you do?
Female: I work on the Hill. You?
Male: I am the personal assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Communication and Outreach at the Department of… of… I forgot, but it’s near Metro Center. Something about the web or social media.
Female: We should certainly hang out.
Male. Totally. Georgetown for shots?
This Memorial Day, in addition to our own dead, we remember the 4,700 people (estimated; the actual body count is classified and/or unknown) killed by American drones. While some were terrible people, many were collateral damage, innocents murdered by accident and simply tossed into the ever-growing pile of horrors the United States has created through its fear and paranoia (some, such as Nobel Peace Prize recipient Obama, still insist on calling it self-defense.)
The drone death toll is subject to debate; the 4,700 number is from Senator Lindsey Graham, a happy proponent of drone killings. Other have placed the count as low as 1,700. Some use a higher number than Graham, including in the math military strikes in combat. We now know that whatever the total number, at least four of the dead were American Citizens murdered by their own government without due process in clear violation of the Constitution.
So here they are. Pick an X below and imagine a person. Then kill him. It is your right as an American.
Happy Memorial Day.
(As a secular act of Kaddish, a meditation, I typed the X’s one by one, all 4,700 of them. Amen)
Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress that U.S. drone strikes since 2009 have killed four Americans — three of whom were “not specifically targeted.”
As Dangeroom reports, for all the effort that Obama has gone to in asserting that its drones only kill the people that the administration selects to kill, Holder wrote in a letter to Senator Patrick Leahy that Samir Khan, 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki and Jude Kenan Mohammad were “not specifically targeted by the United States.” The fourth American to die in a drone strike since 2009 was Abdulrahman’s father Anwar Awlaki, an al Qaeda propagandist who never fired a shot in anger, but whom the U.S. killed in Yemen in 2011.
I have re-read the Constitution and it says nothing about the Bill of Rights not applying to Americans who join terror groups. The Fifth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees “no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law” and include no exceptions for war, terrorism, or being a really bad human being.
I don’t like terrorists, but I do love our Rights as Citizens. If you support rights such as the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms for example, you gotta also take the rest. It is not a menu.
Well, some say, the police shoot criminals who pose an imminent threat without due process all the time. True enough, but the police shootings are often unjustified, but when they are the event happens spontaneously and the cop has to make a life-or-death decision in a split second. The drone killings are planned and well-thought out– premeditated murder.
Drones are surgical strikes, precision smiting of only America’s worst enemies? Then how come the White House admits that three of the four Americans it killed were “not specifically targeted.” In other words, fatal mistakes, collateral damage. Same dead Citizens.
The actual acknowledged death count of Americans killed by their own government is five. Prior to the Obama administration, Kamal Derwish died in a strike launched in Yemen in 2002 under George W. Bush.
We have survived as a nation a very long time without having to resort to this. Why now? Are terror groups so uniquely and specially dangerous? No, of course not. What has happened is that a technology– drones– has morphed into a policy. Obama falsely thinks the drones are clean and of little risk. By stepping off the edge and throwing out the Constitutional protections we have enjoyed for so many years, and for which so many have fought and died, he is doing more damage to America than some bomb. The arguments are old, but I guess we need to roll them out once more: once you unleash the authority to kill you do not know where it will stop. Once you start killing to prevent the possibility of a future act, where will it stop? Once you start creating unconstitutional exceptions to the Constitution, where will it stop? Blasting away a slug like Awlaki is not worth this.
Can’t happen here? FBI Director Mueller, appearing before a House subcommittee, said that he simply did not know whether he could order an assassination of his own against an American here in the U.S. “I have to go back. Uh, I’m not certain whether that was addressed or not” and added “I’m going to defer that to others in the Department of Justice.”
The Constitution was drafted to protect especially citizens whose actions were disfavored by the majority. We cannot let terrorism change the very fabric of America. We must stop now and see past the anger and fear to the bigger picture. This is the government assassinating U.S. citizens without even an indictment–much less a trial. We should all be concerned.
And afraid. I don’t like that as an American I must live in fear.
Our topic was the simmering chaos in free Iraq. With over 290 dead in the past month, the interviewer questioned me on whether things might get as bad as in 2006. My reply: They will get worse, because unlike in 2006 the American Army is not sitting in between the angry Sunnis and the Shias, meaning no third party is available to intercede. In addition, the sort of successful Sunni rebels in Syria (ironically supported by the US against the Shia government assisted by Iran, politics makes strange bedfellows) are at least an inspiration in Iraq and perhaps a source of arms. The Sunnis in Iraq appear now to be strong enough not to lose while not being strong enough to win, a prescription for more and more violence.
I also noted for the BBC audience that the U.S. still maintains the world’s largest and most expensive embassy, in Baghdad, some 11,000 American personnel. Their role in abating chaos is of course zero. No one really knows why they are even there anymore; the embassy’s last role is simply as an artifact of our errors.
Also while in Boston I had a chance to meet some of the students and faculty of Brandeis University. My hat tips to them for maintaining a broad curriculum that emphasizes social justice at its core, in every subject from Biology to Literature.
Lastly, it must be noted that Boston is the source of America’s original patriots, the ones who truly believed in creating a nation based on the rights of people, and who were willing to stake their lives in pursuit of those inalienable rights. These men stand as a reminder to modern Americans that the real meaning of commitment means more than just making it to the gym three times a week.
I thus dropped by the Sam Adams Brewery for a tour and tasting session, held under the oil-painted gaze of namesake Samuel Adams, Brewer and Patriot. Just because you believe in freedom doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time.
Bonus: Those of you who don’t get the reference to Shipping Up to Boston better go get a beer and click here.
Not to brag (OK, I’m bragging) but I am invited to the Playboy Mansion on May 22 to attend the Hugh Hefner First Amendment Awards. It is as good a place as any to hang out while one of this year’s award winners, Colonel Morris Davis, waits (and waits…) for justice as he struggles to protect his and our right to speak out against the government.
Morris Davis v. Thomas Jefferson?
Morris Davis is not some dour civil servant, and for most of his career, unlikely to have been a guest at the Playboy Mansion. Prior to joining the Library of Congress, he spent more than 25 years as an Air Force colonel. He was, in fact, the chief military prosecutor at Guantánamo and showed enormous courage in October 2007 when he resigned from that position and left the Air Force. Davis stated he would not use evidence obtained through torture. When a torture advocate was named his boss, Davis quit rather than face the inevitable order to reverse his position.
Morris Davis then got fired from his research job at the Library of Congress for writing an article in the Wall Street Journal about the evils of justice perverted at Guantanamo, and a similar letter to the editor of the Washington Post. (The irony of being fired for exercising free speech while employed at Thomas Jefferson’s library evidently escaped his bosses.) With the help of the ACLU, Davis demanded his job back. On January 8, 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the Library of Congress on his behalf. In March 2011 a federal court ruled against the Obama Administration’s objections that the suit could go forward (You can read more about Davis’ struggle.)
Justice Postponed is Justice Denied
Moving “forward” is however a somewhat awkward term to use in regards to this case. In the past two years, forward has meant very little in terms of actual justice done. At about the same time in 2011 that Colonel Davis notified the government that he was going to be called as a defense witness for Bradley Manning, the Department of Justice filed a motion to dismiss Davis’ lawsuit against the government, actually seeking to make him pay the government’s court costs, and hinted at potential criminal charges because he copied some unclassified files from his office computer. Of course three years had passed since these alleged 2010 criminal acts and DOJ’s 2013 threats, so perhaps the timing was coincidence, but Colonel Davis said in an interview with me that he believes it was an attempt to discredit him and thus negate any help he could offer Manning.
Despite DOJ’s clumsy efforts, the good news is that at a hearing about a month ago a federal judge denied the government’s stalling motion and the case is moving “forward” again. However, DOJ is again seeking to stall things with multiple delaying motions that require multiple responses, and the motions alone won’t be heard by a court until August. After that comes a lengthy discovery period that will likely take the case to the four year mark. Colonel Davis hopes he’ll get to trial before the five year point. He is a strong man, navigating more successfully between the empowering anger and the consuming bitterness than most people struggling against the government of the United States can manage. Still, it is hard for him to rationalize the amount of time and effort his own government is spending to limit the free speech rights of federal employees.
Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards
The government’s ability to limit free speech, to stopper the First Amendment, is perhaps the most critical issue our republic can face. If you were to write the history of the last decade in Washington, it might well be a story of how, issue by issue, the government freed itself from legal and constitutional bounds when it came to torture, the assassination of U.S. citizens, the holding of prisoners without trial or access to a court of law, the illegal surveillance of American citizens, and so on. In the process, it has entrenched itself in a comfortable shadowland of ever more impenetrable secrecy, while going after any whistleblower who might shine a light in. All that stands in counter to the government’s actions is the First Amendment, exactly as the Founders designed it to be.
The Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards were established in 1979 to honor individuals who make significant contributions to protect First Amendment rights for Americans. Since the inception of the awards, more than 100 individuals including high school students, lawyers, librarians, journalists and educators have been honored. I am very proud that two of last year’s winners, whistleblowers Tom Drake and Jesselyn Radack, are my friends, and that Radack helped defend my right to speak against the Department of State.
So congratulations to Colonel Davis. He earned this award and I’ll be proud to watch him receive it from Christie Hefner on May 22. He is in good company, as Daniel Ellsberg, the Vietnam War era’s version of Bradley Manning, is also being honored. By standing up against a government that is doing wrong, and seeking to bring those wrongs into daylight, both men have earned the privilege to be called patriots. All that said, it is an odd state of things. The only mainstream introspection of the government takes place on Comedy Central. Of all the possible ways I dreamed of getting into the Playboy Mansion over the years, this was not one of them. Nasty business, fighting for one’s First Amendment rights these days. Strange times make for strange bedfellows, even at the Playboy Mansion.
The trial United States v. Pfc. Bradley Manning is being conducted in as much secrecy as the government thinks it can get away with. While the Center for Constitutional Rights has filed a petition requesting the Army Court of Criminal Appeals “to order the Judge to grant the public and press access to the government’s motion papers, the court’s own orders, and transcripts of proceedings,” none of these have been made.
Except of course for Alexa O’Brien, who has amazingly sat in the limited public access area and personally written down every word said that she was allowed to listen to, effectively creating a de facto transcript.
It is heavy legal reading, but worth your time simply to see what lengths the government is going to hang one man. Manning’s actions took place years ago, and whatever he released has been on the internet for years. Any punishment will thus have no real effect, except to commit revenge. So it is in 2013 America.
Deep inside the transcript is a list of upcoming government witnesses. As a public service, we present the names below as they appear, with Alexa’s comments. State Department people in BOLD that I added.
In the government’s 15 March 2013 classified filing Supplement to Prosecution Response to Scheduling Order of 39(a) Session from Closure and Motion to Close Courtroom for Specified Testimony, the government describes the classified information it moves to elicit in closed session for the following witnesses:
(1) Brigadier General Retired Robert Carr, DIA
(2) Colonel Julian Chestnut, DIA
(3) Classified Witness Entirety
(4) Ms. Elizabeth Dibble, Department of State, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
(5) John Doe (Entire)
(6) Rear Admiral Kevin Donegan, Naval Warfare Integration, Pentagon
(7) Mr. John Feeley, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Department of State
(8) Ambassador Patrick F. Kennedy, Under Secretary for Management, Department of State
[Diplomatic Security Services which partnered with the Departments of Defense and Justice in the investigation of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks, and Manning report to Ambassador Patrick Kennedy. Bureau of Intelligence and Research, which created the "August 2011 draft damage assessment" also reports to Kennedy. Kennedy is the Original Classification Authority for the US State Department cables. He also testified to Congress in late November, early December of 2010, and in March 2011 about WikiLeaks. He is also responsible for the WikiLeaks Mitigation Team at the Department of State.]
(9) Mr. John Kirchhofer, DIA
(10) Ambassador Michael Kozak, Department of State
(11) Classified Witness Entirety
(12) Mr. Daniel Lewis, DIA
(13) Mr. Randall Mcgrovey [sp.?], DIA
(14) Mr. James McCarl, Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO)
(15) Major General Kenneth F. McKenzie, USMC Headquarters Staff
(16) Mr. James Moore, Department of State
(17) Major General Michael [last name like, "Ma-guy"] McGuy, Joints Staff Pentagon
(18) SSA [Supervisory Special Agent] Alexander Pott [sp.], FBI
(19) Ambassador David Pearce, Department of State
(20) Mr. Adam Pearson, JIEDDO
(21) Mr. H. Dean Pittman, Department of State
(22) Classified Witness in Entirety
(23) Ambassador Stephen Seche, Department of State
(24) Mr. David Shaver, US Department of Treasury
(25) Mr. Catherine Stobel [sp.], CIA
(26) Ambassador Don Yamamoto, Department of State
(27) Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Department of State; and
(28) Mr. Joseph Yun, Department of State
So Who Are These People?
Of course we have no idea whether any of the unnamed “classified” witnesses are from State, though it is doubtful.
Most/all of the State Department people listed head up various bureaus at State. These bureaus are the bureaucratic structures that handle say “East Asian Affairs” or “European Affairs.” Just guessing here, but the government is probably calling them to testify on behalf of their world region about all the horrible, terrible things that have happened since Manning released the documents. None of us will be allowed to hear what they have to say, but it would be safe to assume the court will listen to a lot of drama and smoke and LIONS and TIGERS and BEARS! horror-speak and very little substantive comment.
The most interesting State witness is Patrick F. Kennedy, the Under Secretary of State for Management. Kennedy keeps popping up on this blog, in the press and in front of Congress (he was the real point man on Benghazi.) He has been around State for a very long time, and basically runs the place administratively in Washington while various important people fly around the world doing their diplomacy.
Kennedy is officially the “original classifying authority,” the person at State who is titularly responsible for every classification decision. He may just offer up some boring testimony confirming that all the documents manning leaked labeled “Secret” were indeed classified Secret.
Or maybe not. Kennedy also oversaw State’s internal report on the Wikileaks impact and ran the working group that was supposed to identify people at risk because their names appeared in the State Department cables online. Notice how every weird, bad or naughty thing that State does somehow involves Pat Kennedy?It would be worth serious coin to listen in on Kennedy’s testimony but alas, because this is America now, the trial is largely off limits.
Bonus: Some earlier State Department personnel testimony about State’s internal processes surrounding the Wikileaks disclosures. Nothing earth shaking, but some interesting inside baseball stuff from Ops Center coordinator Rena Bitter about how the bureaucracy processed the new information. Short version: most of the effort was spent informing Department big shots of potentially embarrassing stuff the media caught. The Defense seems to be establishing that there was not much real-world impact from the disclosures.
Eric Holder has told us that he “recused” himself from decisions the organization he heads made to help destroy freedom of the press in the United States by seizing the phone records of the Associated Press. He simply said that he was not involved, so please address your concerns somewhere else. The President, Holder’s boss, made similar remarks. The government did things to belittle the Constitution and neither the President nor the Attorney General has much concern or connection with it all. Things happen.
The pattern is not unique to the phone records, nor to even the nobody-is-responsible actions of the IRS against organizations seeking non-profit status whose political beliefs ran counter to the Obama Administration. Indeed, even as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton claimed that she had no idea of what was going on underneath her in the organization vis-vis Libya, and that counted as a defense. Hell, we fire football coaches when the team loses, even though they don’t punt, pass or kick themselves. Leaders are responsible for what their organizations do. That’s what the job is, not just photo-ops and world travel.
But for all the recent “-gates” and scandals, let’s take a moment to remember the uber-scandal of the Obama Administration: it’s claim that it may legally kill Americans by drone, with no due process.
Historians of the future, if they are not imprisoned for saying so, will trace the end of America’s democratic experiment to the fearful days immediately after 9/11, what Bruce Springsteen called the days of the empty sky, when frightened, small men named Bush and Cheney made the first decisions to abandon the Constitution in the name of freedom and created a new version of the security state with the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, secret prisons and sanctioned torture by the US government. They proceeded carefully, making sure that lawyers in their employ sanctioned each dark act, much as kings in old Europe used the church to justify their own actions.
Those same historians will remark from exile on the irony that such horrendous policies were not only upheld by Obama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and professor of Constitutional law, but added to until we came to the place we sadly occupy today: the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder, publicly stating that the American Government may murder one of its own citizens when it wishes to do so, and that the requirements of due process enshrined in the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, itself drawn from the Magna Carta that was the first reflowering of basic human rights since the Greeks, can be satisfied simply by a decision by that same President.
We will thus be remembered as the ones who gave up. No more clever wordplay (enhanced interrogations, “patriot” act, targeted killing, kinetic operations) but a simple declaration that the US Government will kill its own citizens when it wishes to, via a secret process we, and our victims, are not allowed to know or contest.
Brevity in Our Freedom
Like most of the Bill of Rights, the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution is beautiful in its brevity and clarity. When you are saying something true, pure, clean and right, you often do not need many words: “…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
There are no footnotes in the Fifth Amendment, no caveats, no secret memos, no exceptions for war, terrorism, mass rape, creation of concentration camps, acts of genocide, child torture or any evil. Those things are unnecessary, because in the beauty of what Lincoln offered to his audience as “a government of the people, by the people, for the people,” the government would be made up of us, the purpose of government was to serve us, and the government would be beholden to us. Such a government would be incapable of killing its own citizens without care and debate and open trial.
With the excuse all tyrants proclaim, protecting the nation, on or about September 30, 2011 a US drone fired a missile in Yemen and killed American Citizen Anwar al Awlaki, born in the United States and tragically devoted to al Qaeda. A few days later the US also killed al Zawaki’s 16 year old American Citizen son. The US had shot at the elder al Awlaki before, on May 7, 2011 under Obama’s orders, and under the Bush administration. Before the US government killed his son, attorneys for al Awlaki’s father tried to persuade a US District Court to issue an injunction preventing the government killing of al Awlaki. A judge dismissed the case, ruling the father did not have standing to sue. This was the first time in our nation’s history that a father sought to sue to prevent the government from extra-legally killing his son. The judge in the case surrendered to his post-9/11 fear and wrote that it was up to the elected branches of government, not the courts, to determine whether the United States has the authority to murder its own citizens by decree.
Fear Shaped by Lies to Compel Compliance
Attorney General Holder said things no honest man would ever believe would be said by the highest law officer in the United States.
Holder said “that a careful and thorough executive branch review of the facts in a case amounts to ‘due process’ and that the Constitution’s Fifth Amendment protection against depriving a citizen of his or her life without due process of law does not mandate a ‘judicial process.’”
Holder thus also declaimed that the victim also has no right to a defense, no right to speak on his behalf, no right to examine and refute the evidence against him and no right even to know his life will be taken under the decision of a few men in Washington. Indeed, Holder made clear that the government’s decision to kill overshadowed the right to self-defense in saying “An individual’s interest in making sure that the government does not target him erroneously could not be more significant. Yet it is imperative for the government to counter threats posed by senior operational leaders of al Qaeda, and to protect the innocent people whose lives could be lost in their attacks.”
Holder said he rejected any attempt to label such operations assassinations, invoking the same airbrush of lawfulness that fueled the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials and the Holocaust. “Assassinations are unlawful killings. The US government’s use of lethal force in self-defense against a leader of al-Qaeda or an associated force who presents an imminent threat of violent attack would not be unlawful.” In other words, if the President does it, it is no illegal.
Historians will look back on us as the people of America who gave up on its experiment with unalienable rights, rights that are natural, not given, rights independent of governments, what our Declaration explained to an unsure forming nation as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
America was different. We became a country not based on a common language, or religion or anything else except adherence to a common set of beliefs, our Bill of Rights. When you take that away, there is nothing left in common, and dammit Eric Holder and Barack Obama know that.
The saddest part of a very sad day: the majority of Americans– the consent of the governed– seemingly do not care what Holder said, and are even now bleating on internet forums and likely in comments below to this article about the need to kill more, adding terrified, empty justifications to Holder’s clever statements. We did not have our freedom taken from us, we gave it away. That is real terror.
Now at the Washington Institute, a “think” tank, Jeffrey surveyed the current crumbling scene in Iraq from his office window (May is already boiling, and April was the bloodiest month there since 2008, with 712 killed, 1,633 wounded in sectarian violence) and wildly uncorked this remark:
Obama should also signal his willingness to consider new approaches to Iraq if the Maliki government continues its campaign against the Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations.
[Jon Stewart-type mug face to camera look now]
OMG! A willingness, really? And to consider? And the stinger, a new approach?!?
Utter bullshit. All the impact of a David Bowie-Justin Bieber slap fight.
Heavens me, Prime Minister Maliki must be a’ quaking in his sandals. Maliki watched in 2010 as the U.S. stood aside and allowed Iran to broker the election that put him in power. He tried to arrest his Sunni VP practically hours after the last US troops left Iraq. He has seen the U.S. do nothing as he seeks to crush violently the Sunni and Kurd minorities over an extended period of time, including during Ambassador Jeffrey’s own lame tenure. Maliki has allowed Iran to tranship weapons into Syria across Iraq while the U.S. dithered from some dark corner.
Maliki knows a defeated nation when he sees one. This is how America loses wars, former Ambassador Jeffrey.
Colonel Morris Davis was the Chief Prosecutor for the terrorism trials at Guantanamo Bay for more than two years. He resigned rather than be forced to use information obtained by torture in his prosecutions.
More than 160 men who have never been charged with any offense, much less convicted of a war crime, remain at Guantanamo with no end in sight. There is something fundamentally wrong with a system where not being charged with a war crime keeps you locked away indefinitely and a war crime conviction is your ticket home. Over 100 of the 166 men who remain in Guantanamo are engaged in a hunger strike in protest of their indefinite detention. Twenty-one of them are being force-fed and five are hospitalized.
Some of the men have been in prison for more than eleven years without charge or trial. The United States has cleared a majority of the detainees for transfer out of Guantanamo, yet they remain in custody year after year because of their citizenship and ongoing political gamesmanship in the U.S.
This year, for Mom’s sake (you know she’ll be proud of you!), help Davis tell the President it is time to end Guantanamo. What you need to do is simple: add your name to Davis’ petition right now.
I had the pleasure of speaking yesterday at George Mason University alongside Christopher Coyne.
Chris is the author of an excellent new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond. I’ll have a full review online soon.
My thanks to the students, faculty and staff at George Mason!
We were once the American Dream, and now we’re just what happened to it. That’s the phrase that informs my research into a new book I’m working on, The People on the Bus: A Story of the #99Percent. I’m trying to trace the decline of the American Middle Class over the last forty years, and the concurrent rise of the Working Poor. The people I am writing about seem illusive here on the East Coast; in crazy New York last week, visiting the South Bronx, there are plenty of poor people. The sense in Midtown was that if they didn’t deserve to be poor, then, well, they were sort of naturally thrust into it as immigrants, as drug users, simply because they lived in a poor part of the city and it always would be. Kind of the natural ecology of the place.
In talking to people in New York the working class tends to appear as caricatures, like Joe the Plumber in interior America was to politicians, the people of Brigadoon for elections, who then fade after the candidates grab votes promising new jobs and manicured optimism for a working class that somehow still listens to them. It’s inconveniently convenient to walk among them every four years, like having to be nice at your in-laws’ house for a family gathering. OK as long as it doesn’t drag on too long.
The View from Ground Zero
The story is different when I talk about what I’m working on in Kansas, Kentucky or Ohio. People there nod their heads, and everyone has a story to add: the family that lost their home to the bank, the factory that closed down and the retail outlets that replaced the factory closed down, one after another piling up like the late spring snow we had that week. People say “But I’ll take any job. I just want to work. I’m not too proud to get my hands dirty. I still know how to sweat, the good kind.”
I believe them all. But even if they’ll accept minimum wage, how far is a couple of dollars an hour throwing construction debris into a Dumpster going to get you? Better than nothing but not much better. You going to do ten hours of labor for the phone bill? Another ten for the groceries each week? Another twenty or thirty for a car payment? How many hours you going to work? How many can you work? Nobody can make a full living doing those jobs. You can’t raise a family on minimum wage. And you can’t build a nation on the working poor. It is a rough portrait of an American past and a tough vision to push into an American future.
But my goal isn’t to speak in broad terms; I want to understand what’s happening on an almost documentary level. So what stood out on this trip was the proliferation of a new, New Economy, one designed to prey on the fact that people who don’t deserve to be poor are now poor. There are whole industries that sprang up because poor people became a new market.
Pawn shops are an old business, but one that has grown alongside the working poor. In 1911, there were only 1,976 licensed pawnbrokers in the country. By 1988, there were 6,900 pawnshops in the U.S. (one for every two commercial banks) and in 2012 there were almost 14,000 pawnshops in operation throughout the United States.
Pawn shops are one thing, but there are newer predators on the ground. I ended up buying Kenny’s story for two cups of coffee. Kenny told me that he couldn’t qualify for a credit card, the middle class’ old way of borrowing money. Average people with cards carry monthly balances of almost $16,000 and that’s at twelve to fifteen percent interest, so not a helluva lot different from payday loans. Just looks cleaner. Kenny told me about the trap of the rent-to-own stores, who let people without a credit card rent a TV or a washer and dryer until they paid back a lot more than the appliance is worth. It was more like time payments than rental as most people used to understand the word. By the time you owned the appliance, it was old, and with interest you dropped $450 on a $200 item. You needed something and there wasn’t any other way to get it.
Rent-to-Own is a big, big business. According to Broke, USA: From Pawnshops to Poverty, Inc. – How the Working Poor Became Big Business by Gary Rivlin, the largest rent-to-own operation, Rent-A-Center, reported three billion dollars in revenues in 2008. The bottom line has only gotten stronger for them since.
Kenny even said he’d tried to cash in on it for himself, working briefly for a collections agency. When folks could not pay, the debt got sold down the line. Some big bank wasn’t going to fuss over small change, so it sold the ownership of the debt to a big agency, who sold it to a smaller one like he worked for, a place that might see profit in getting twenty percent of a two hundred dollar collection. At those rent-to-own joints, customers have to sign tons of papers, all looking like they were written by a Keep Lawyers Employed committee, so that if you miss a payment the store takes back the whole appliance, not just the half they still own.
This scared the people renting, but actually the last thing that company wanted was to repo a two year old TV, so Kenny’s job was to knock on the door and try to get them to pay something, and at the same time see if they’d refinance at an even higher rate. Loan to pay a loan. That old TV was worth nothing to the rent-to-own store, but it was some kind of magic thing to some old lady. If she was a single mom, the TV was her babysitter—feed your sister after Wheel of Fortune, lights out after Idol– and she wasn’t going to give it up easy. When Kenny talked them into an even uglier refi deal that let them keep the TV, they’d usually thank him for helping them out. Sometimes, he said, moms would offer what he called a couch payment, bed in return for a report to the boss of no one home. His last customer before he quit the job was a former soldier who owed for a bicycle he was renting/buying over time for his daughter’s ninth birthday. Kenny said to hell with it, he wasn’t going to repo a Barbie two-wheeler with pink streamers on the handle bars and reported it as No One Home in that part of America.
The Ohio town we were in was falling apart economically, but it still had its looks, to a point. This wasn’t the South Bronx. Old habits die hard. When middle class folks fall out of the middle class, they still tend to keep things neat and see that grass gets cut. But what was once maybe quaint was now just old and tired. Pretty soon I worry there’ll be no one home.
Van Buren wrote about the New Economy and what working for minimum wage means earlier on the Huffington Post.
The State Department was beaten up pretty bad in today’s Benghazi hearing, with both Deputy Chief of Mission Greg Hicks (second in charge after the ambassador) and RSO (security guy) Ed Nordstrom from Libya contradicting earlier State Department remarks.
Hicks in particular made it clear that there was absolutely nothing to justify Susan Rice’s September 2012 assertions that the attack had anything to do with an anti-Muslim video demonstration, and that all reporting from Libya, from the first phone call, claimed a terror attack was underway.
Nordstrom was equally blunt that the State Department willfully understaffed security in Benghazi, and ignored evidence that the Consulate was vulnerable.
Hicks, Nordstrom and the third witness, Mark Thompson, came off as credible, dispassionate and very serious. Meanwhile, while Republicans were accused going in of playing politics, it was the Democratic members of the committee who were shrill, crude and desperate in trying to degrade (as opposed to rebut) the witnesses.
Most fingers pointed toward Under Secretary of Management Pat Kennedy and Hillary aid Cheryl Mills as acting as Hillary’s proxies to make the bad, tragic, decisions. Long-term fallout unclear, but a lot of angry people in Foggy Bottom right now. The State Department was portrayed as disorganized, and often far more concerned about political impressions than the safety of its people and informing the American public.
A decent summary of what was said, from CNN.
I live-Tweeted most of the hearing. Search Twitter for @wemeantwell or #Benghazi to review.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa announced three witnesses will appear at a full committee hearing, “Benghazi: Exposing Failure and Recognizing Courage,” on Wednesday, May 8, 2013.
The witnesses are Mark Thompson, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Counterterrorism, Gregory Hicks, former Deputy Chief of Mission/Chargé d’Affairs in Libya and Eric Nordstrom, Diplomatic Security Officer and former Regional Security Officer in Libya. Only Nordstrom has testified publically before, basically pointing out tactical security failures.
“I applaud these individuals for answering our call to testify in front of the Committee. They have critical information about what occurred before, during, and after the Benghazi terrorist attacks that differs on key points from what Administration officials – including those on the Accountability Review Board – have portrayed,” said Issa.
Gotta Be Said
OK, let’s get this initial stuff out of the way. Yes, yes, there are lots of important things about America Congress should address, but yes, this hearing is happening, And yes, of course it is aimed at Hillary 2016.
But to play fair, Hillary 2016 is a big deal. If the election were held today, she’d be the next president. So maybe, albeit with some political mud slung alongside, we should pay attention to how she acted, how she failed to act, and whether she enjoyed some sort of coverup/soft-sell over what really happened in Benghazi. To paraphrase Mrs. Clinton’s own political rhetoric, we need to know how she’ll act when that tragic 3am phone call comes through. While past performance is no guarantee of future success or failure, it is how the smart money should bet.
So let’s preview what might happen in the upcoming hearing.
1) Easy Stuff: Lots of shout-outs to fallen colleagues, grieving relatives, brave troops, yeah, yeah.
2) The Basics: Lots of in-the-weeds failures to be detailed. Interesting to see if much of this will be blamed on the Libyans, who should have intervened, or soft-pedaled along the lines of “mistakes were made.” Also, budgets cut, requests ignored. At great cost. To fallen colleagues.
Someone else has already neatly discredited the story that some sort of special ops mission could have saved lives in Benghazi, including the possible use of Avis rental cars from their Benghazi outlet. Expect a fair amount of inconclusive, uninformed speculation about what the military should or could have done, but it is likely to hover above disagreement over tactics and below some sort of conspiracy-level move.
Not to be discussed: How Obama’s intervention created a power vacuum in eastern Libya, which eventually led not just to this attack but the sacking of Mali, which was prevented only by the French military with U.S. help, essentially a new war to fix the mistakes of the previous war.
3) The Coverup: Expect Susan Rice to be re-thrown under the bus, then thrown again one more time for good measure. Rice, you’ll recall, pretty much got on national tee vee the Sunday after the Consulate attacks and told fibs, blaming it all on some dumb anti-Muslim movie and trying to avoid any mention of terrorism. She is widely held to have tried to soft-pedal the attack in the run-up to Obama’s re-election in November 2012. Obama was bleating about defeating al Qaeda and crushing bin Laden with his bare hands at the time, so no one wanted a “successful” terror attack on the news. Rice was the designated messenger, with Hillary’s excellent sense of avoiding trouble guiding her into not making substantive statements about her own Consulate and her own Ambassador being murdered.
There will also be a string of sleazy emails, featuring then-State Spokesdrone Victoria Nuland trying to rewrite the talking points to protect Hillary and, if possible, Obama. Absent some real surprise, these are unfortunately business as usual in Washington now. Don’t expect any discussion on how every administration seeks to buffalo the public and the media to its own advantage. Also, drones like Nuland are trained to never mention their boss’ name– Hillary Clinton– per se in any communication. They just say things like “our leadership” or “higher authorities.” This is a clever trick to ensure no name-retrievable documents are ever created, and allows deniability over to whom she was actually referring. It’s inside Washington stuff they don’t teach you at Georgetown kids!
After weeks of delays in late 2012, to include a self-inflicted concussion, as expected, Hillary Clinton’s perfunctory testimony on the deaths of four Americans in Libya a) took “responsibility” for Benghazi in words alone, shucking blame and (in)action onto others, b) wrapped herself in the flag to shout down her questioners and c) revealed nothing new. Always eyes on the 2016 prize, that one.
The re-death of Rice has been clearly signaled by the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya, Gregory Hicks, in his leaked statements slathered all over CNN. The Republicans will go red meat crazy over all this, but they won’t find any smoking gun at the White House or from Hillary Land. Both are too clever, even if they were involved, and Rice was too gullible and too disposable. Poor Susan Rice, she even now on Twitter is just a shell of her old self. Whereas pre-Benghazi she’d often be calling for the blood and stones of some dictator, her Tweets now are just sad little acknowledgments of some International Women’s Day or the like. She’ll hang around the UN where she does not matter and is outside Washington, or drift into some make-work academic slot. Bye.
Proof that Rice is finished? Biden just confirmed the President’s “confidence” in her, even though no one asked.
4) The Big Money Shot: How high did State Department malfeasance for the Benghazi attack go?
Here’s where the action is. State’s own internal review, the so-called After Action Review Board, pinged only some relative worker bees, sending them into administrative leave purgatory. The highest ranking person spanked just changed job titles. The Board, hand-selected by Hillary, never even bothered to interview Hillary. Will the hearing find a way to stick some blame on her? Expect no discussion about the After Action process itself, or why Obama has not appointed an Inspector General for the State Department, a job empty since 2008.
Or maybe not. Hicks’ leaked statement aims a bit higher, but only it seems as high as Under Secretary for Management slug Pat Kennedy. Inside State, this is a big deal, as Kennedy effectively runs the bureaucratic, administrative and personnel sides of the State Department and is thus a very powerful man in there (Diplomatic Security reports to him.) However, outside of State (i.e., on Fox News) he is a nobody. Still, if Kennedy were encouraged to retire after this, an awful lot of garbage would go out the door at State with him, to the betterment of the organization.
If Kennedy is as high as it goes, it goes nowhere really. Kennedy is well-known for throwing himself on his sword to save his Boss, and the likelihood of him implicating Hillary is precisely zero.
Zero with extreme prejudice.
And in the End?
Prediction: Much smoke, nothing more, at least a default win for Hillary 2016, even more for her if Issa makes an idiot of himself.
My mom always forwards me the worst email crap, multi-megabyte Powerpoints of cats, or babies doing something odd, or homilies to life last century and the like. I usually thus delete most FWD’ed messages, but this one caught my eye. It’s making its way around the world so you might have already deleted it. If not, enjoy a cheap laugh. And be nice to your mother this Sunday, Mothers Day.
How to Be an Afghanistan Expert
1. Cite your most recent trip to the region where you saw – with your own eyes, absent the media’s blinders – irrefutable progress. Add points if you spoke with some cigar store Afghan who confirmed this for you. Add double points if you attended an actual jirga. (Subtract points if you were actually at a shura and mistook it for a jirga).
2. Imply that if only the clearance-less masses were privileged enough to see the same “high side” intelligence that you do, they would know the truth. Add points if you have an actual clearance and didn’t just look it up on Wikileaks.
3. Visit a bazaar. Chat with friendly merchants. Lots of salaams, lots of right-hand-over-your-heart greetings. Buy a (warm) orange Fanta. Note – often and loudly – that this bazaar was closed until ISAF forces arrived. Add points if you can drive to this bazaar, versus flying. Add double points if you can wear armor and helmet without looking like some parody of an obese war tourist.
4. Play down the fact that you are paid roughly $1,000 a day to “advise” the military and deny that there is any subsequent conflict-of-interest when you come home and write flattering things about progress in Afghanistan.
5. Whatever you do, avoid spending too much time in Afghanistan. In addition to acquiring language skills and some measure of cultural understanding, you risk becoming cynical and perhaps even despairing of our odds of success.
6. Adopt a “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” approach to the region. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and amid the protests of others who have spent years on the ground, imply that through sheer force of will and maybe a Jedi mind trick or two, we shall overcome. Add points if you can beat the other experts in latching onto some insignificant scrap of “evidence” supporting “progress.” Add double points if you are the first to tweet about it.
7. If pressed on the deteriorating security situation, offer some babble about “the night being darkest before the dawn” and tie it into a tortured thesis about how escalating violence is actually a sign of counterinsurgency success. Add points of you can maintain a straight face making this point while citing vastly improved “kill ratios.” Subtract points if your “analysis” is eventually compared to an ISAF version of the 5 O’Clock Follies.
8. Write numerous “analytical reports” with phrases such as “The Way Forward” or “How to Win” in the title. No one, not even your colleagues in the think tank world, will actually read these, but they will be cited widely as a substitute for reading something substantive, that might offer actual insight into Afghanistan. Add points if you can deride previous scholarship on Afghanistan as “Orientalist.”
9. ‘The Grand Slam’ – authorship of a COIN pamphlet that gainsays the holy trinity: Petraeus, Nagl and Kilcullen. If pressed on the apparent failure of COIN in Afghanistan, cite some obscure insurgency – The Malayan Emergency is a good choice – and note how long success took to occur.
10. In case you ever write a book and need a jacket photo, make sure to get a photo of yourself rocking a full beard, a pakool, and a dastmaal. Subtract points if you insist on maintaining this appearance once you return to DC.
My thanks to the students and faculty of Penn State (especially Professor Dennis Jett) for hosting me for the second time in two years to speak about Iraq and my experiences at war with the Department of State.
The questions and discussion this year were particularly focused, given the ongoing failure of reconstruction in Afghanistan, a continued chaotic outcome in Iraq spilling over into Syria and of course the tragic death of a Foreign Service Officer engaged in America’s crumbly efforts in Afghanistan.
I particularly enjoy meeting with young people considering a career in the Foreign Service to share my experiences, and am already looking forward to next year!
So it was recently new year in Thailand, Songkran, celebrated by throwing water, face painting and dancing, all for the good. The Thais know how to throw a party.
In the middle of all this, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok spends sequester-free dollars to make this video,
featuring starring idolizing the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney.
I’ve looked all over, and cannot find any other country’s ambassador to Thailand dancing and grinning like she is on the third day of a serious meth bender, on video (the other ambassadors may take meth and dance, but they have the class to not do it on camera). The Thai comments on YouTube are all nice, but then again the Thais are a wonderfully polite people.
I have also looked everywhere for video of the Thai Ambassador to the United States doing something “American” on video for Fourth of July, or any other American holiday, maybe smoking meth at a NASCAR tailgate.
We are then left with the question of whether the American Embassy alone understands the power and value of social media, producing these videos and catapulting public opinion of the U.S.A to crazy heights while other nations just stand aside gaping at our brilliance. Or are we just a bunch of idiots?
Note: All joking aside, it looks like the Ambassador performed the whole video backwards, which is pretty freaking cool. It also accounts for the spaced out looks on everyone’s faces, so maybe it wasn’t the meth. I could criticize her for what must have been a forever process of rehearsal when she should have been reading Wikileaks or something, but in the end fair points for that.
At an April 30 briefing regarding press reports that the State Department is seeking to intimidate or punish employees planning on blowing the whistle on Department incompetence surrounding the deaths at the Benghazi Consulate, deputy spokesman Patrick Ventrell said:
The State Department would never tolerate or sanction retaliation against whistleblowers on any issue, including this one. That’s an obligation we take very seriously.
To which I reply: Poppycock.
And by the way, any of you potential State Department whistleblowers need some advice, it is info(at)wemeantwell.com
There is a school of physics, or maybe science fiction, it doesn’t matter, that posits if matter and anti-matter collide it will be the end of the universe. Collapse of the time-space continuum, regression of the speed of light, that sort of thing. We can say now that such theories are wrong, having witnessed a great collision of reality and anti-reality at the Bush Library opening and lived to tell the tale.
Last week found us wallowing in the opening of the Bush Library in Texas, a monument to George W. and his eight year reign of terror in America. The library opening also signified the opening shots of Bush revisionism, the signal that all loyal or ignorant (perhaps loyal and ignorant?) pundits should start trying to make up a new version of reality to replace the evil, horrible crap that really happened between 2000-2008.
Leading the pack was Charles Krauthammer (the name is somehow not a punchline of its own), who reminded us of how wonderful the Iraq War really was. Krauthammer fapped:
Finally, the surge, a courageous Bush decision taken against near-universal opposition, that produced the greatest U.S. military turnaround since the Inchon landing. And inflicted the single most significant defeat for al-Qaeda (save Afghanistan) — a humiliating rout at the hands of Iraqi Sunnis fighting side-by-side with the American infidel.
As with Lincoln, it took Bush years of agonizing bloody stalemate before he finally found his general and his strategy. Yet, for all the terrible cost, Bush bequeathed to Obama a strategically won war.
Wow. That’s enough to make an old man proud. Out of breath here, gimme a minute, OK…
Meanwhile, in the real Iraq, last week saw the deaths of some 200 people, mostly those perky Sunnis Krauthammer writes about, in combat against the dominate Shia regime (Krauthammer at least got it right that it was a civil war.) The fighting escalated to the point where Sunni fighters briefly took over a town and had to be killed by the Iraqi army to restore Shia order.
Also among the Sunni dead last week were two Sahwa (“Sons of Iraq”) leaders, gunned down with silenced pistols in a classic assasination. The Sahwa of course were America’s creation, the Sunnis willing to fight on our side for money.
The killings noted above were preceded by a series of pre-election bomb blasts across Iraq that killed at least 42 people and wounded more than 257 others. Suck on that Boston!
The whimpering U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was roused from its absinthe-fueled haze to issue a bland statement that “raised concerns” about the Sunni-Shia clashes, without of course assigning blame. It again called for an “urgent and transparent investigation.” And get this line, delivered without irony: “The United States stands firmly with the Iraqi people who seek to live in peace after so many decades of war.” Hah hah, it’s funny because it was the U.S. that created those decades of war! It’s like SNL, the good years!
But the most significant sign of Iraq’s state of democracy was that Iraqi authorities announced Sunday they revoked the operating licenses of pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and nine other satellite TV channels, alleging that they are promoting a “sectarian agenda.” That agenda seems to include reporting on more than the wonderfulness of the Shia Maliki government, hence the censorship.
Now if you want to be sad, read this bit of revisionism, as one American soldier continues to imagine his time in Iraq “made a difference.” You understand the politicians and the pundits say their stupid things for gain or money, but this soldier is just plain sad trying to make his sacrifice seem worthwhile. My heart goes out to him in his ignorance of how he was used.
So, that all clearly justifies 4,462 American and 122,000 Iraqi dead under Bush’s war. Moving on…
Bonus: Condi Rice explains why Bush-era torture was OK (Turns out it was all nice and legal)
Extra Bonus: Handy guide, “How to Debunk George W. Bush’s Attempts at Revisionism,” neatly destroys the “but he kept us safe” myth.
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